02/06/2013 01:47 EST | Updated 04/08/2013 05:12 EDT

Alberta Energy Minister Kent Hughes Asked To Stop Oil Leases On Vanishing Caribou Range

EDMONTON - Environmentalists have asked Alberta Energy Minister Ken Hughes to stop selling oil and gas leases on the last remaining habitat of a vanishing caribou herd before it disappears completely.

"The fate of this caribou herd rests with your decision to defer new leasing and disturbance until enough habitat can be restored to recover these populations," says the letter from the Alberta Wilderness Association. "Please take the first step by postponing these auctions of new dispositions in the Little Smoky range."

All of Alberta's 15 caribou herds are threatened by industrial incursion into the old-growth forest they require to survive, but the Little Smoky herd in the northwest corner of the province may be the worst off. The herd is down to its last 100 animals and scientists say about 95 per cent of its range is heavily disturbed by energy and forestry development, putting the animals in imminent danger of dying out.

Provincial and federal environmental policy emphasize conservation and rehabilitation of caribou habitat. Federal documents say caribou need to be able to use at least 65 per cent of their range.

But Alberta Energy has continued to sell off energy leases in the remaining five per cent of the Little Smoky range. That area remains relatively pristine and is heavily used by the herd.

Between 2009 and 2010, the government leased out about 84 per cent of two townships in the heart of the undisturbed area and sales continue. Another 9,000 hectares of land are expected to be leased out by the end of April.

"That just adds more disturbance and makes their survival prospects unlikely," Carolyn Campbell, the association's conservation specialist, said Wednesday.

"It seems a no-brainer with the Alberta caribou policy and the federal recovery strategy that we need to stop new surface disturbance. These new leases just compound the existing problems and the existing failure of managing habitat so that herd has a chance."

Alberta Energy spokesman Mike Deising said energy leases only involve subsurface rights. Any surface activity is subject to additional regulatory scrutiny, he said.

"Approving the lease does not guarantee that one can develop it. They need to go through a process and meet all the tests."

Land is put up for oil and gas lease in Alberta through requests from industry. Those requests are reviewed by both the province's energy and environment departments.

"There's a lot of co-operation with (Environment) on the front end and the back end," said Deising. "That's why you will see conditions put on leases."

The Environment Ministry does have the power to deny surface access and has done so in the past.

Others in the Energy Department have also pointed out that the area for lease in the coming months is a tiny fraction of the Little Smoky herd's total range.

Campbell responds that the impact of any road, cutline or well site extends far beyond its boundaries. Research suggests that caribou avoid being within 500 metres of any disturbed area, meaning even a narrow road cuts a one-kilometre swath through the bush.

Although the Little Smoky caribou have remained stable for the last six years, that's largely because of an extensive program of killing wolves that prey on them.

Alberta Environment and Sustainable Resource Development officials have acknowledged that predator management is not a permanent solution. Caribou specialists within that department have acknowledged that without improvements to habitat, the Little Smoky herd is unlikely to survive.

That shows who's really in charge of caribou policy, said Campbell.

"It says that Alberta Energy is the dominant driver of what goes on in caribou range, and that they're ignorant about their own effects. That's highly irresponsible."