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Environmentalists say Alberta forestry deferral 'more than symbolic' for caribou

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CALGARY - The Alberta government has banned logging for one year on a range used by endangered caribou northeast of Jasper National Park.

All 15 of Alberta's caribou herds have been shrinking rapidly, mostly due to habitat destruction by energy and forestry development.

The latest move is geared at allowing range plan development that will protect critical habitat and help the caribou population recover. It comes after the Alberta government put a hold on new energy leases in both the Little Smoky and neighbouring A la Peche ranges on the border of the park earlier this year.

"The oil and gas deferral in Little Smoky is almost symbolic because so much has already been disturbed and so much has already been leased," said Carolyn Campbell, a wildlife specialist with the Alberta Wilderness Association.

"With the logging, though, that's more than symbolic if you stop actual, on the ground logging. That's why we're encouraged.

"We're seeing decisions coming out of this government that give credibility that they actually want to take some steps to actually guarantee caribou survival."

Campbell questions why a similar ban on logging on the A la Peche range hasn't also been announced.

The federal government’s boreal woodland caribou strategy, finalized in October 2012, mandates that provinces to develop range plans for woodland caribou survival.

Alberta is set to start the process for the Little Smoky and A La Peche ranges later this month.

The federal strategy states that plans must describe how critical habitat will be protected to attain a minimum of 65 per cent undisturbed habitat over time and provide a range-specific path forward for the recovery of that caribou population.

The Little Smoky range, which has 80 caribou, is the worst off in the province. At least 95 per cent of the herd's range is already classified as heavily damaged by energy and forestry development, putting the animals in imminent danger of dying out.

"In the Little Smoky, things are very bad," Campbell said. "Caribou are sensitive animals and forestry, oil and gas, roads, power lines and motorized recreation are all things that they shy away from.

"Deer and moose are attracted to the disturbed habitat and the wolves follow. The only thing keeping the Little Smoky caribou is a mass wolf kill by the Alberta government which is unethical because they have not to date done anything to stop the destruction of new habitat."

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, Campbell said.

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