The federal government is on the verge of completing a recovery plan for the woodland caribou, which has disappeared from the Maritimes and is losing ground in Ontario and the West as human development pushes further northward.
The Pew Environment Group, a major U.S. conservation organization, and the Canadian Boreal Initiative, which promotes conservation in the boreal forest, wrote letters on Tuesday to the federal government and to provinces that still harbour a woodland caribou population.
Backed by a new scientific analysis that shows very large protected areas will be required for the species to survive, they said major land-use planning must start now to ensure that the animals remain part of Canada's future.
"Their concern is legitimate and it's something that we are responding to," said Peter Kent, the federal Environment Minister.
The government, Mr. Kent said, hopes to have a recovery plan in place by the end of the summer. It is being developed with input from environmentalists, first nations, and the resource sector, whose co-operation will be required to ensure its success.
"In some places," the minister said, "the numbers [of woodland caribou]have diminished to the point where regional or sub-regional recovery plans may require fairly drastic protective action."
Larry Innes, director of the Canadian Boreal Initiative, said woodland caribou, which range across the boreal forest that stretches from one end of Canada to the other, are a bellwether for the environment. "Where caribou begin to wink out, then that is a sign of an ecosystem in decline," he said.
The woodland caribou require exceptionally large areas of relatively old and intact forest habitat. And they need to keep distance between themselves and predators that are being pushed into their habitat as human activity moves north.
Forestry has been the biggest contributor to their demise, but mining, oil and gas exploitation, and the Alberta oil sands have had a role too.
While the Pew Group and the Canadian Boreal Initiative said urgent action from governments is needed, they lauded the work of some provinces, especially Ontario.
Linda Jeffrey, the Ontario Minister of Natural Resources, said her government recognizes that the woodland caribou is a special animal.
"We think they are like the canary in the mine shaft. If you take care of the caribou, the rest of your North will be protected," Ms. Jeffrey said. "So we put a piece of legislation through last year called the Far North Act and that protects caribou habitat in parts of the province where forestry can occur."