Ecologists in Saskatchewan are cheering a small but significant resurgence in the population of endangered sage grouse in the Canadian Prairies.
The Saskatchewan Ministry of Environment counted 33 males in surveys conducted this spring on leks (mating grounds) in Grasslands National Park — up from just six in 2014 — and estimates the total population of sage grouse in the province to be between 99 and 147 individuals.
"We’re really excited because it’s the second consecutive year the numbers are up," said Beatriz Prieto, a terrestrial ecologist with the ministry.
Prieto attributes the population jump to this year's comparatively mild winter. The winters of 2013 and 2014 were especially harsh, and deep snow that lasts well into the spring makes it hard for the sage grouse to access the sagebrush ground cover on which it feeds.
Jordan Ignatiuk, executive director of Nature Saskatchewan, said sage grouse numbers are up slightly in Alberta as well and agrees that weather is likely the driving force behind the bird's return.
He said it's difficult to know how an unprecedented and controversial federal emergency protection order issued for the species in late 2013 has impacted its recovery. That order placed tight limits on development, land use and noise levels on federal lands in southern Alberta and Saskatchewan and is currently the subject of a lawsuit from a Calgary-based oil and gas company that says it went bankrupt as a result of the new restrictions.
Ignatiuk said observers are "cautiously optimistic" that the grouse's numbers will continue to rise. "With a population that's still in peril, one bad weather or predation event is all it would take for those numbers to plummet."
"All we can do is keep monitoring the habitat," said Prieto, noting that many leks outside of Grasslands used by sage grouse in the past are still in good shape and ready for birds.
"It would be nice to see them dance on provincial or private land again."