tp_woodland_caribou_cp_1460

Canada's declining herds of woodland caribou will survive only if governments protect large tracts of northern forest from oil and gas and other development, conservation groups and First Nations warn. ((Courtesy Mike Bedell/CPAWS, CP) )

First Nations have given Ottawa until Aug. 27 to create an emergency plan to halt development in areas of northeastern Alberta that they say are critical to the woodland caribou population.

Lawyers on behalf of the Chipewyan Prairie Dene First Nation, the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation, the Beaver Lake Cree Nation and the Enoch Cree Nation sent a letter to federal Environment Minister Jim Prentice on July 15 requesting that no more development permits be handed out.

If Prentice fails to act, the group said, it will seek a court order forcing the government to protect the caribou.

The letter said Canada is more than three years behind on its promise to create a recovery strategy for woodland caribou, listed as a threatened species since 2002 under the federal Species At Risk Act. Such a strategy is a critical step to protect the caribou, whose numbers have seen a drastic decline since 1995 as a result of the growth of the oil and gas industry, the letter said.

'In great danger of disappearing'

The letter refers to research by Stan Boutin of the University of Alberta, who has studied the caribou population for the past 15 years. "The decline has been so drastic that their numbers have dipped to a point in many areas where they are in very big trouble and in great danger of disappearing completely," Boutin said.

According to Boutin, the Cold Lake Air Weapons Range herd has declined 74 per cent since 1998, while the East Side Athabasca River herd has shrunk by 71 per cent since 1996.

bc-090330-mountain-caribou

Alberta's oilsands activity indirectly affects woodland caribou and their habitat, First Nations groups say. ((Mountain Caribou Project))

Alberta's oilsands activity indirectly affects caribou and their habitat, Boutin said.

"As energy sector development occurs, lots of seismic lines for exploration are produced. And these features tend to enhance the movements of wolves … [making] them more efficient hunters," he said. "As a result their numbers respond by increasing as well. So it's that increase in the wolves that spins off to have a negative effect on the caribou."

'Our sacred animal'

The call to ban development is intended to spare enough woodland caribou to maintain the traditional aboriginal harvest, the First Nations group said.

"The extinction of caribou would mean the extinction of our people. The caribou is our sacred animal; it is a measure of our way of life," Chief Vern Janvier of the Chipewyan Prairie Dene said in a statement.

"When the caribou are dying, the land is dying. We see no respect from government for the caribou or for us as humans. The way Alberta is operating, profit for the oil industry is number 1, and everything else can be sacrificed."

The federal government hasn't responded to the request.