"Right now what we're deciding is a postponement of the land sales," Chris Bourdeau, spokesman for Alberta Energy, said Friday.
"That gives us a little more time to take a look at the issue and do our due diligence ... because Albertans are very aware of some of the challenges concerning caribou, and government shares that concern."
Bidding was to have closed next Wednesday on 21,000 hectares of prime habitat for the Redrock-Prairie Creek caribou, which both the federal and provincial governments are legally obliged to protect. The population has been reduced to 127 animals and has been declining at the rate of 14 per cent a year — one of the highest rates of any Alberta caribou herd.
At least half the herd's range in northwestern Alberta near the town of Grande Cache is already disturbed by energy and forestry development. Federal scientists have recommended the maximum be no more than one-third.
"There's some challenges with the caribou herd in that region, so we wanted to take a look at the request by industry for more land and take a look at how we want to proceed with that sale," said Bourdeau.
Alberta Energy had already divided the land into individual parcels for lease and bidding had opened.
But Bourdeau said the government had been considering the postponement for weeks before the decision was made Friday morning — the day after the media reported the sale was going ahead.
Previous sales of energy leases on endangered caribou habitat have provoked widespread criticism.
Reaction to the postponement was quite different.
"I've got to pinch myself that I'm awake here," said Carolyn Campbell of the Alberta Wilderness Association, which routinely tracks and publicizes lease sales in caribou habitat. "We hope it's the first step to comprehensive deferrals until there's strong rules in those caribou ranges to reduce the current (industrial) footprint."
The government has also placed a moratorium on lease sales for an adjacent range inhabited by the Little Smoky-a la Peche herd. That land is 95 per cent disturbed.
Seismic lines and roads into forests and wetlands provide wolves with easy access to caribou, which results in higher predation than the herds can tolerate.
The provincial and federal governments have long promised to do a better job protecting the herds, which federal scientists have said should be considered endangered, the most serious risk assessment available under Canadian law.
Ottawa has released its own caribou recovery strategy and has told Alberta it must develop plans to protect the province's herds by 2017.
Range plans for four of those herds, including the Little Smoky-a la Peche and the Redrock-Priaire Creek, are expected this spring. A plan for the Little Smoky herd is already more than a year overdue.
— Follow at @row1960 on Twitter.