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Photo top left: Greater sage-grouse at the Wildlife Conservation Centre
Photo top right: Joel Sartore and his set-up for photographing the greater sage-grouse

Photo: Joel Sartore

Lights, camera, conservation action! The greater sage-grouse takes centre stage with famed National Geographic photographer, Joel Sartore. Earlier this month, Sartore visited the Wilder Institute/Calgary Zoo in collaboration with Arts Commons to photograph the next three species for the Joel Sartore/National Geographic Photo Ark project – Japanese serow, northern rockhopper, and greater sage-grouse. Sartore is more than halfway to his goal of documenting the approximate 20,000 species living in zoos and wildlife sanctuaries across the world.


The zoo partnered with the Joel Sartore/National Geographic Photo Ark project last November with the launch of the Wilder Institute – the zoo’s newly rebranded conservation charity which oversees the Calgary Zoo’s conservation portfolio. Sartore was in Calgary to present his sold-out show Joel Sartore: Building the Photo Ark Sartore hosted by Arts Commons at the Jack Singer Concert Hall. Sartore, Wilder Institute/Calgary Zoo, and Arts Commons all share a common hope – that the wild becomes wilder!


The Wilder Institute/Calgary Zoo leads Canada’s only greater sage-grouse conservation breeding and reintroduction program which presented an exclusive opportunity for Sartore to photograph this iconic Canadian species. The Joel Sartore/National Geographic Photo Ark project is supporting conservation efforts by drawing attention to endangered species, such as the greater sage-grouse, and the critical role progressive accredited zoos and aquariums like the Wilder Institute/Calgary Zoo play in protecting biodiversity.


The greater sage-grouse (Centrocercus urophasianus) is listed as Endangered under the Species at Risk Act (SARA) making this prairie bird more than deserving of the spotlight. One of the main reasons that sage-grouse are endangered is due to habitat loss and degradation of native grassland habitats. Collaborative efforts to support both the recovery of sage-grouse and grassland ecosystems will both play an important role in seeing a rise in population numbers for the greater sage-grouse.


“The greater sage-grouse is an icon of Canada’s grasslands habitat, so it’s especially exciting to see this prairie bird join the Joel Sartore/National Geographic Photo Ark project. With our grasslands facing numerous threats, it’s now more important than ever to draw attention to this ecosystem and the species that inhabit it. We were thrilled to host Joel both on zoo grounds and offsite at the Wilder Institute’s Wildlife Conservation Centre – working together to raise awareness for the greater sage-grouse and other species we love and care for,” said Colleen Baird, Senior Manager, Animal Care, Health, Welfare.


Even before the photoshoot with Sartore, the greater sage-grouse was already famous for its showy mating display. Through body-popping, harmonious clucking, and showing off their spiked feathers, the greater sage-grouse won the hearts of many with their elaborate dances. Open grassland areas provide the perfect spot for their communal mating grounds, otherwise known as a “lek”, for these birds to show off their dance moves. In Canada, Alberta and Saskatchewan are both home to active leks that draw in sage-grouse from across the prairies.


Committed to building a flourishing population  

In partnership with Alberta Environment and Parks and Environment and Climate Change Canada, the Wilder Institute/Calgary Zoo is working towards recovery of the greater sage-grouse on grasslands in Alberta and Saskatchewan by supplementing the wild population with captive-born birds. A team of experts in animal care, veterinary medicine, horticulture, and conservation science are hard at work to ensure that sage-grouse have the best chance of survival from chicks to adults.


Currently, there are 53 hens and 29 males thriving at the Snyder-Wilson Family Greater Sage-Grouse Pavilion at the zoo’s offsite conservation breeding and reintroduction centre. The Wilder Institute/Calgary Zoo’s Animal Care, Health & Welfare team deploys a range of rearing techniques to preserve the unique genetics of the species, including hen-rearing, human-assisted rearing, and incubation processes. Success rates are monitored to determine the most effective breeding practices and help ensure wild populations are re-established over time.


“Our journey to see the greater sage-grouse thrive once again in the wild is not an easy one but we are up for the challenge,” said Baird. “We utilize a hands-off approach to ensure that the birds are able to retain their natural instincts that are essential for their survival in the wild. We provide them with a nearly natural grasslands environment while they are in our care and have seen success in both their reproduction and welfare thanks to this approach.”


What’s next for the greater sage-grouse?  

187 sage-grouse have been released into the wild through the breeding and reintroduction program. Research efforts will focus on discovering how to improve survival rates for individuals released into the wild. There are planned releases this spring and fall throughout the prairies of southern Alberta and Saskatchewan.


The teams are hopeful that continued efforts to bolster the wild sage-grouse population will restore balance to the prairie landscape leading to a positive future not only for the greater sage-grouse, but also for the 350 species of wildlife that share its grassland home.


“Saving endangered species really is a community effort. This work wouldn’t be possible without our partners and the larger conservation community,” said Baird. “Though the community doesn’t just end there. The awareness that is raised by wildlife enthusiasts across the globe is just as important. From well-known photographers such as Joel Sartore, to the everyday wildlife advocate, everyone has a role to play in protecting species at risk.”


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