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Experts recommend limiting ravens, owls to save sage grouse from extinction

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CALGARY - Conservation experts are making five main recommendations to protect one of Canada's most highly endangered birds from extinction.

One suggestion is to protect the sage grouse by potentially reducing the number of predators, such as ravens.

The ideas come from a workshop by the Calgary Zoo that brought together biologists, ranchers, government and energy industry representatives.

Axel Moehrenschlager, head of the zoo's Centre for Conservation Research, says what's surprising is that many of the predators are other birds.

"There's expansions by ravens, if you can believe, into the Prairie landscape and as such Alberta Fish and Wildlife is looking at ways of reducing the raven numbers, for example, so that predation on eggs or even young chicks goes down," said Moehrenschlager.

Moehrenschlager said great horned owls are also affecting sage grouse.

Moehrenschlager said reducing numbers doesn't mean a cull is necessary.

"One of the things that the provincial government is looking at is, for instance, limiting the number of roosting sites that raptors can use," he said.

"There are some old abandoned buildings that raptors are using, such as owls are using, to hatch their young. And so basically making those buildings inaccessible, so that they have fewer chances to breed in that landscape and as such have a lower impact on the greater sage grouse as well."

Moehrenschlager says other options include fencing off areas where there are sage grouse nests so predators can't get to them.

Other recommendations include setting up a captive breeding centre for sage grouse and establishing a group to help guide recovery efforts of the northern silver sagebrush ecosystem.

The sage grouse population has dropped by 98 per cent over the last 25 to 45 years; there are fewer than 138 birds remaining in Canada. And the Calgary Zoo says models suggest current reproduction and survival rates are too low to sustain the wild population and extinction is likely within two to five years if action isn't taken immediately.

The federal government issued an emergency order to protect the bird across 1,700 square kilometres of Crown land in Alberta and Saskatchewan.

Moehrenschlager said the workshop's recommendations could help save the species from extinction if they're implemented immediately.

"The trajectory has been downwards for a long time. The numbers are critically low. And the numbers of birds that are presently on the ground are not all in the same place, they're spread over a larger landscape," he said.

"I think that the recommendations that came out of the workshop from all the experts, both in Canada and the United States, are comprehensive and if they're all acted on, as we intend that they will be, I think the species really does stand a good chance of still making a comeback in Canada."

— By Jennifer Graham in Regina

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