A man dressed as Bou the Caribou, the mascot for the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society, holds up the number of names who signed a petition to protect woodland caribou during a protest on Parliament Hill on Feb.16. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

Environment Canada had to be dragged into court before it came up with a recovery strategy for Canada's endangered woodland caribou.

But that proposed conservation strategy is so controversial, the government will be forced to delay its final decision on the method of conservation by a month due to an overwhelming amount of public feedback.

Wednesday was the deadline for comments on the recovery strategy and Environment Canada received 14,000 submissions.

"I understand the impatience of those who would like snap decisions or faster decisions but we are doing our due diligence," Environment Minister Peter Kent said.

Environmentalists aren't willing to wait. CBC News has learned that Ecojustice, the environmental law firm that represented groups who brought the initial case, will be back in Federal Court again Thursday.

They want Kent to bring in an emergency plan immediately to protect the woodland caribou in northeastern Alberta.

The woodland caribou live in small herds in the boreal forest stretching from Labrador to the Arctic coast in Yukon. About 32,000 survive.

The animals were listed as threatened under the Species at Risk Act in 2002, which meant the government should have had a recovery strategy in place by 2007.

When none was forthcoming, a collection of environmental groups took the federal government to court and forced the government to act. It introduced its recovery plan in August of last year.

"We shouldn't have been required to do anything," said Melissa Gorrie, a lawyer with Ecojustice. "Legally, the federal government is required to come up with a recovery strategy."


Should wolves be culled to protect the caribou? Take our poll.

But, according to Gorrie, the government's strategy falls far short of what's acceptable. Her main problem is that many of the herds in north-eastern Alberta are essentially being written off in favour of oilsands interests, which have encroached upon the caribou's habitat.

"It's not going to the root of the problem, Which is the need for undisturbed habitat in the areas where caribou range," says Gorrie. Those caribou herds will only have a tiny part of their habitat preserved.

Government strategy targets wolves

Along with that element of the strategy is another step that angers conservationists. According to the government's proposed strategy, keeping the herds' numbers at a sustainable level will require "habitat management tools."

That's a euphemism for wolf kills.

"My response is really a visceral one. That this is really a disgusting thought," said Paul Paquette, a wolf biologist.

Paquette said he senses government cynicism in this move.

"It's a diversionary tactic, I think, a strategy so that people aren't really focussing on what the real problem is. And that's industrial development."

Not all caribou biologists disagree with the government's plan.

Stan Boutin is one of Canada's foremost authorities on the woodland caribou.

"I think we have to start thinking outside the box. So I'm positive in terms of what the federal plan has along those lines," said the University of Alberta biologist.

He doesn't like the idea of wolf kills either but he also says it is unrealistic to believe you can stop oilsands activity — it's just too valuable and important a resource for the Canadian economy.

Boutin thinks that some herds just have to be written off. He believes in a triage approach to saving the woodland caribou, and it just so happens that the write-offs are in Alberta's oilsands basin.

But if some herds are going to be lost then real effort and resources need to be put into conserving those that are worth protecting, Boutin said.

"You have to show agressively that you're in fact maintaining those herds that are in reasonably good shape and have high probability of success in the long term," said Boutin.

"Government, to buy some real credibility in all of this, has to clearly show that they have put priority somewhere in the province on caribou."

Environment Canada is expected to present its final recovery strategy for woodland caribou sometime in April.

But environmentalists aren't waiting. CBC News has learned that Ecojustice will be back in federal court again Thursday. They want the environment minister to immediately bring in an emergency plan to protect the woodland caribou in northeastern Alberta.

With files from The Canadian Press