"(Scientists) have reached a conclusion that this thing has to be kicked up a notch and moved from threatened to endangered," said Sustainable Resources Minister Mel Knight.
A recommendation to strengthen caribou protection was delivered to Knight's office last week from an industry, government and scientific panel charged with deciding what to do about Alberta's vanishing caribou. The report from the endangered species conservation committee came nearly a year after research work was completed and after months of bitter debate.
Researchers have long agreed that Alberta's herds — especially in the province's oilsands region — are in rapid decline due mostly to habitat loss.
One study from earlier this summer found an average of 75 per cent of caribou range in the oilsands area has been disturbed by fire, industry, or both. Another said two Alberta herds have declined by three-quarters in the last 10 to 15 years. Some now number fewer than 200 animals.
Last September, scientists on the committee agreed with that assessment.
"A highly significant negative relationship between level of habitat alteration and caribou population growth rate has been demonstrated," they wrote. "The amount of (human-caused) habitat change is high across caribou ranges in Alberta as a result of oil and gas exploration and development (and) forest harvest activity.
"The best available evidence suggests that the Alberta woodland caribou qualifies for endangered."
But documents obtained by The Canadian Press show that conclusion was attacked by the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers and the Alberta Forest Products Association, both represented on the committee.
The petroleum producers hired two consultant biologists, who produced a long document questioning how the government scientists arrived at their population counts. The forestry group questioned the scientific work's transparency.
"I was surprised," said Rene Belland, a University of Alberta biologist, who sits on the committee and helped write the report.
"The methodology is extremely well-documented in the literature and accepted by scientists. I'm not quite sure what the issue was."
Both organizations asked for and received a delay in voting on the recommendation.
The division continued to widen as the scientists attempted to deal with questions from energy and forestry representatives. The debate became increasingly bitter.
Minutes of their meetings say one unidentified member said "the government of Alberta doesn't care about property rights."
During a December meeting where the recommendation failed to pass a vote, one of the scientists said: "What should we do when ideology is being cloaked as questions about science?"
David Price of the petroleum producers said their concerns were about methods and transparency.
"This is as much art as science," he said. "We agree that caribou as a species are challenged."
"There were some uncertainties in how the science was presented to us."
The forest products associations declined comment.
Tory member of the legislature and committee chairman Arno Doerksen acknowledges the debate.
"I think we've had some fairly lively and pertinent discussion around how some of those interests play together," he said.
The recommendation to declare the woodland caribou endangered was finally passed last spring. The petroleum organization and the forestry group — as well as the Western Stock Grower's Association — were opposed. Their objections were forwarded to Knight along with the recommendation.
"The socio-economic implications of a listing need to be considered," said Price.
Knight said he will continue to seek more input before making a decision.
Doerksen hinted the government favours voluntary moves to protect caribou.
"I see industry making a very significant investment and ongoing contribution to ensure that activity in these sensitive areas is sustainable and mitigates risk to threatened species. I think we've got very strong partners in industry. They want to do the responsible thing out there."
Cliff Wallis of the Alberta Wilderness Association, which discovered the documents using Freedom of Information legislation, said he's used to hearing industry talk about co-operation and balance.
"They say, 'We are here to recover caribou. That's the prime purpose of the recovery committee,' and everything they do is to undermine caribou recovery and protect their vested interest.
"Delay, deny and deflect — that's what they're trying to do all the time."
Knight said he didn't have a timeline for delivering his decision.
Federal Environment Minister Peter Kent is expected to deliver a federal strategy on caribou recovery around the end of the month.