• A male Sage Grouse (also known as the Greater Sage Grouse) in the United States. (Photo: Pacific Southwest Region U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

The regally-collared greater sage grouse faces powerful opponents in its latest battle to survive.

The City of Medicine Hat and oil company LGX Oil & Gas Inc. are heading to Federal Court in an attempt to stop an emergency order issued in December 2013 to protect the greater sage grouse. The emergency order took effect on Feb. 18, 2014.

There has been a 98 per cent decline in this bird’s population over the last 26 years, largely due to local farmers, roads and oil construction. With estimates of fewer than 90 birds left in the wild, the Canadian government took steps to immediately halt the extinction of the animal.

But the emergency order protecting the endangered bird from outright extinction would cause huge losses for the oil industry, with Environment Canada estimating a $10-million loss to oil companies over the course of ten years.

“It’s strictly the economic interests of the City that are motivating that position,” says Mark Boyce, a University of Alberta professor specializing in the evolution of birds and other mammals. “As is usually the case when it’s an economic issue versus the environment, the environment is not given adequate consideration.”

Murray Trollope, Director of Natural Gas and Petroleum Resources in Medicine Hat, says the underlying issue the City has with the order lies in the government's neglect of broaching the issue with the City and the companies the order affects.

“This really is about a lack of consultation,” Trollope says. “Environment Canada really didn’t take the time to consult with us.”

Before the order was issued, Trollope says the City took actions to minimally disturb the area, including abandoning wells in sites where there was sage grouse activity, controlling drilling during mating season and not drilling near active sage grouse mating areas.

Trollope also says that the actual revenue losses for the City and LGX Oil & Gas Inc. alone are estimated to be closer to ten times the amount the government has cited.

While the City takes its fight to court, other levels of government are establishing a provincially- and federally-sponsored breeding program within the Calgary Zoo, with combined funding of $4.2 million over 10 years.

The Calgary Zoo is hoping to make a positive change to the floundering fate of the sage grouse.

“The conditions they require are severely altered from what they were,” says Axel Moehrenschlager, head of the Calgary Zoo’s Centre for Conservation Research.

Moehrenschlager says the degradation of the sage grouse’s natural habitat by human infrastructure and industrial development has brought about a lethal disturbance to the bird’s “very social and site specific” breeding season.

“In Canada, the greater sage grouse is facing imminent extinction,” Moehrenschlager says, adding that without the Calgary Zoo’s breeding program and any change to current conditions, the greater sage grouse population in Alberta will be extinct within two to five years.

The arguments on the case will likely be heard in June.

To learn more about the sage grouse, read our previous story on the emergency order.