01/10/2012 01:34 EST | Updated 03/11/2012 05:12 EDT

Study shows caribou habitat loss greatest in Alberta, B.C.

EDMONTON - An analysis shows that Alberta and British Columbia have lost the highest percentage of caribou habitat in the country, mostly due to industrial development.

"Two provinces in particular are doing what could be described as a terrible job at managing industrial developments in threatened caribou habitat," Peter Lee of Global Forest Watch said Tuesday. "And it's mainly the oil and gas industry that is the culprit in terms of the extent of disturbances caused by the industrial sectors."

The group's report came as hearings opened in Kitimat, B.C., to consider a pipeline from Alberta to the West Coast that would encourage further development.

The analysis builds on recent Environment Canada research that looked at the state of caribou habitat across Canada as part of a recovery strategy for the threatened species, which is in decline across the country. However, the government didn't break down habitat degradation by province.

"It's really the provinces that have most of the authority for protecting caribou habitat because they control resource development, so it's important to do a jurisdictional comparison," Lee said.

Caribou are well-known to be sensitive to any disruption. A recent study by U.S. researchers found that the shy animals would rather hang out in less productive forests than be in areas rich in food but also heavy in human activity.

With that in mind, Lee examined the extent of human-caused disturbance in all 10 provinces and territories that have woodland caribou. He found that industry alone has had an impact on 73.4 per cent of the caribou range in British Columbia and 53.7 per cent in Alberta.

"The vast majority of the industrial disturbances in these two jurisdictions is caused by the oil and gas industry," the report says.

Disturbance in other jurisdictions — mostly caused by forestry — was much lower: 13.8 per cent in Quebec and 11.8 per cent in Ontario. The national average is 13.6 per cent.

"That's an enormous difference," said Lee.

Both Alberta and the federal government have developed plans to conserve caribou habitat.

But scientists suggest that Alberta's plan, which fails to protect the best habitat where it overlaps with the richest oilsands deposits, won't stop the province's 11 herds from being wiped out within a generation.

That plan was withdrawn by new Premier Alison Redford and is being reworked after complaints that the province's land-use legislation, under which the caribou strategy was developed, didn't respect property rights.

Ottawa's plan allows for continued habitat loss for regions such as Alberta's oilsands as long as there is a plan to stabilize the local herd. Environment Minister Peter Kent concedes that means slaughtering wolves from helicopters — as many as 25 for every single caribou calf.

Lee wonders if either approach is viable as the world looks ever harder at the environmental cost of Canadian energy development.

"Increased attention is already being paid to Canada and it's negative," he said. "We've got to figure out a way to turn that around," he said.

"It's questionable whether shooting wolves indefinitely over broad landscapes is acceptable to Canadians and to people we market our energy supplies to internationally."

Lee said the report will go to the federal government as part of public comment on the proposed caribou recovery strategy. The comment period is open until Feb. 22.