OTTAWA - The oilsands could wipe out threatened woodland caribou populations in northern Alberta if regulators fail to protect the boreal forest and its surrounding habitat, warn experts from government, industry and academic sectors.
In a letter sent Tuesday to the Stelmach and Harper governments, a conservation group said decision makers must listen to the advice of their own experts and restrict oilsands development in at least half of the region.
"It may not be easy, but we think it is possible for you to reconcile the interests of both habitat conservation and the industry in the oilsands area - if you take a clear stand and act decisively now," said the letter, written by Helene Walsh, boreal conservation director at the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society.
Walsh noted the number of woodland caribou has dropped by nearly half since 1993 in the area where industry is concentrated.
"Unless there is a significant change in policy and regulation, there is real danger that the caribou are headed for extinction," wrote Walsh, who is a biologist.
The letter also stressed the region was home to many aboriginal communities and wildlife species.
"Our boreal forests and wetlands cleanse our air, purify our water and moderate our climate," said the letter. "Boreal soils store huge amounts of carbon. When humans disturb intact boreal forests and wetlands, we release that land-based carbon and accelerate the rate of global warming."
The warnings echo the conclusions of a report prepared for the Alberta government last year by a panel of experts that included two oil-producing industry representatives from Golder Associates and ConocoPhillips.
The Athabasca Landscape Team panel recommended immediate action on a management plan to save the woodland caribou populations in the region.
"Boreal caribou will not persist for more than two to four decades without immediate and aggressive management intervention," said the report, which was also prepared by experts in government and the academic sector. "Tough choices need to be made between the management imperative to recover boreal caribou and plans for ongoing bitumen development and industrial land-use."
Walsh said some of the recommended areas for protection do not contain bitumen and would not affect the industry, however, she added the government would have to make difficult choices for some of the habitat areas where there is an overlap with oilsands activity that represents about 40 per cent of the region.
"It's crucial for the caribou," Walsh said in an interview. "Some industry (stakeholders) have signed on to a document that says 50 per cent of the boreal should be protected from industrial use. But when it's in their own back yard they're not so keen."
The Harper government also received a federal report warning that many woodland caribou herds were at risk but recommended further study and consultations last spring.