April 9, 2009 / 6:17 PM / 10 years ago

Canada's caribou face growing risk

OTTAWA (Reuters) - Canada’s 36,000-strong population of woodland caribou will shrink over the next century and those animals that live in areas heavy in energy production and logging are at greatest risk, according to a major report released on Thursday.

The Conservative government — which received the report last June but has only made it public now — angered conservationists by saying the document was not detailed enough and called for more studies.

Ottawa denied it had sat on the report, saying it needed time to study a complex topic. Environmental critics regularly accuse the government of not caring about green issues and of being too close to the energy industry.

Unlike the other more common types of caribou, which migrate across Canada’s northern tundra and Arctic in huge herds numbering in the hundreds of thousands, the woodland caribou live further south in the boreal forests that stretch across the entire country. There are 57 herds in all.

The study, compiled by a group of 18 caribou experts, said 29 of the herds were not self-sustaining. Many of the herds most at risk were in the energy-producing western provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan.

“The inherent risks associated with a small population size warrant a cautious approach when considering potential resilience to any additional disturbance,” it concluded.

The Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society, which has long campaigned to protect the woodland caribou, said the report showed the animals were in more trouble than anyone realized.

“We are calling for an immediate pause to logging and new development activity in critical caribou habitat,” said the society’s Aran O’Carroll.

The federal environment ministry said the report needed to look further into the effect of human activity on the caribou.

“It does not provide enough detail about the habitat disturbance that can be tolerated by caribou populations and still maintain long-term persistence,” said a spokeswoman.

She said the ministry would produce a strategy in mid-2011 to protect the animals.

“We completely disagree with that. We think it is the most scientifically conclusive report ever produced on the species,” O’Carroll told Reuters.

In early 2007, specialists said they were worried by the falling population of barren-ground caribou in Canada’s vast Northwest Territories. They blamed factors such varying climate, insect levels, the amount of food available, and the number of predators.

Reporting by David Ljunggren

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