Public consultations on a caribou recovery strategy come to an end Wednesday but Environment Minister Peter Kent said he will likely extend the time the government has to sift through what its heard by an additional 30 days beyond the usual 30-day period.
That means it will be April before the government comes up with a recovery strategy to save a species driven out of its habitat by oilsands development and urban sprawl in booming western Canada.
Kent said he needed the additional time after more than 14,000 submissions were handed in during a consultation period on a draft recovery plan that began last September.
"I understand the impatience of those who would like snap decisions or faster decisions but we are doing our due diligence," Kent said in an interview.
"One of the principle reasons for the extension was to properly consult with First Nations," he said.
There are currently about 32,000 boreal woodland caribou remaining in Canada, according to Environment Canada's latest survey. That number is a revised estimate from 36,000 a decade earlier. At least half of the caribou's range has been lost due to activities that disturb and fragment their forest habitat.
Some of the government's critics believe Kent is dragging his feet on the issue. Simon Dyer, policy director at the Pembina Institute, said there were immediate steps the government could have taken to halt the decline of the woodland caribou's population.
"Regardless of how long it takes to implement a recovery strategy what is critical is we need emergency protections for some of these herds in the interim, but the minister refused to do that," Dyer said.
Oil sands development, road construction and other human activity are the primary threats to the woodland caribou in northern British Columbia and Alberta, according to a scientific review done by Environment Canada.
Alberta caribou herds are in the most danger of extinction and are classified as "very unlikely'' to survive while herds in Saskatchewan are also in dire straits. The review found that the majority of the caribou herds elsewhere in Canada are in satisfactory shape and at self-sustaining levels.
Alberta’s oil sands region contains eight woodland caribou herds and according to Global Forest Watch 82 per cent of the Albertan caribou range has been leased for oil and gas development.
"We know that caribou have declined throughout the province, not just in the oil sands area but in other areas where caribou habitat has been damaged by massive wildfires, so we are trying to find ways to reduce the likelihood of human activities adding to that," said Dave Ealey, spokesperson for Alberta’s Sustainable Resource Development.
The Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS) delivered 32,000 Canadian signatures to Kent last week to ask him to strengthen the national strategy.
"This (petition) represents one person for every remaining boreal woodland caribou that remains in Canada," said Eric Hebert-Daly, national executive director of CPAWS.
He said the government's draft strategy only requires the government to recover half of Canada’s remaining boreal woodland caribou herds to self-sustaining levels.
"We are concerned the government may be prepared to sacrifice some herds instead of considering limits to industrial development."
He also said his organization is concerned about the government’s proposed long-term survival rate for caribou populations.
"The draft strategy requires a 60 per cent chance of persistence when it comes to the survival of the woodland caribou, and for us 60 per cent is not sufficient, we should be aiming closer to 80 per cent."
Kent said he has meet with various oilsands operators to discuss a range of environmental issues including the recovery and protection of caribou herds.
"They are very serious as individual operators and they understand their responsibility to Canada’s environmental regulations," he said.
The government's report drew condemnation from many environmental groups for suggesting provinces could permit activities that destroy critical caribou habitat if they "provide a plan that will support stabilized local populations through the use of mortality and habitat management tools."
These "management tools" include allowing a wolf cull to protect fragile caribou populations in conjunction with other strategies. Those strategies include poisoning wolves with baits laced with the deadly poison strychnine and allowing increased hunting of deer and moose, who share the caribou habitat.
"I have talked with my counter parts in Alberta and Saskatchewan and when we get to the final recovery plan we will see exactly how different recovery techniques have to be applied," said Kent.
Officials in Alberta have emphasized that this program has not yet begun despite the fact wolves are currently controlled in the province.
Note to readers: This is a corrected story. An earlier version said the caribou appeared on one side of Canadian quarters since 1936. In fact, they've appeared on the coins since 1937.