Northern leaders are speaking out after an environmental audit criticized the federal government for not doing enough to protect at-risk bison herds.

First Nations say the wood bison's habitat in Northern Alberta is under attack.

In 2003, the species was listed as threatened under the Species at Risk Act, but according to the environment commissioner's report released this week, the federal government has done nothing to recover those numbers in years.

"In the situation of the wood bison, the populations have declined by over 90 per cent and the recovery strategy is six years out of date," said Neil Maxwell, interim commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development committee.

The Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation has lobbied governments to protect the Ronald Lake wood bison herd for 30 years. 

"It has sustained ACFN for thousands of years," said Pat Marcel, an elder from the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation. "We've used this herd for a long, long time. Now the government won't protect this herd, they just say, 'Well, it's diseased anyways.'"

Environment Canada says wood bison can only be protected if there is a one-per-cent-or-less chance of disease among the herd. The biggest threats are TB and brucellosis.

But in these recent tests of 20 animals, only two cases of the diseases were found. And those tests were done on the Wood Buffalo National Park herd, which elders say is not genetically related to the Ronald Lake herd.

Environment Canada admits it doesn't know if the Ronald Lake herd carries any disease at all. And Northern leaders say it's not disease that's the biggest threat to the herd.

"In the oil sands areas these concerns are simply shunted aside by the federal government and Alberta government in their relentless pursuit of the ever-expanding oil sands," said Dennis Bevington, MP for the Western Arctic.

The environmental audit agrees. It says critical habitat is threatened by oil and gas development. ACFN says recent plans to build an open-pit mine in the heartland of the herd poses further threats and a more urgent need for protection. 

The Environment Commissioner estimates Environment Canada has such a huge backlog of recovery strategies required under the Species at Risk Act, that it could take 10 years to catch up.

He will present the report to a parliamentary committee Thursday.