In a document released late Friday afternoon, Environment Canada released the final version of long-awaited recovery strategy for the animals, which scientists believe could be wiped out from some areas within a generation.
The plan puts the emphasis on habitat restoration, saying that all caribou ranges should be at least 65 per cent undisturbed.
"For boreal caribou ranges with less than 65 per cent undisturbed habitat, restoration ... will be necessary."
Most of those ranges that don't meet the threshold are in Alberta, where oilsands development has disturbed more than 80 per cent of some.
That could put the federal plan at odds with the province, said Simon Dyer of the Pembina Institute, an environmental think-tank.
"The target for every range is to incrementally start improving toward 65 per cent," he said.
"I would think that it would require a much higher level of due diligence to ensure restoration is exceeding the rate of new development. It does set the recovery plan on a collision course with industry."
Alberta government officials said they won't comment on the plan until Tuesday, when they've had a chance to look at it.
Federal Environment Minister Peter Kent wasn't immediately available for comment.
The plan finds that 37 of Canada's woodland caribou herds are in decline. Only 14 are self-sustaining.
Previous studies have found almost all the Alberta herds — most of which are in the same region as the oilsands — are very unlikely to survive.
One 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.
The current plan no longer contains a provision for allowing development to continue to occur in caribou habitat that is less than 65 per cent intact. It also seems to reduce the emphasis on shooting wolves as a way to keep caribou numbers healthy — although it does acknowledge culls may be necessary.
That's a response to criticism of the draft recovery strategy released last year, said Carolyn Campbell of the Alberta Wilderness Association.
"It looks like under strong pressure from the Canadian public, the government decided to significantly improve the recovery plan," she said.
However, she warned that its implementation depends on co-operation from provincial governments. She also noted that the plan gives the government another three to five years to develop a plan for each range, then more time to develop an action plan after that.
Still, both she and Dyer say the document's emphasis on habitat preservation and restoration is promising.
"They've recognized the most urgent thing is habitat restoration and landscape planning," Campbell said.
—By Bob Weber in Edmonton