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Alberta’s caribou herds have been shrinking rapidly, mostly due to habitat destruction.

HO/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Environmentalists are offering a rare pat on the back to the Alberta government after it put a hold on new energy leases in the ranges of two disappearing caribou herds.

"It's still a small on-the-ground step for caribou, but it's a big shift for the government," Carolyn Campbell, of the Alberta Wilderness Association, said Friday.

In a letter this week to the association, Energy Minister Ken Hughes said no new leases will be issued in the Little Smoky and A la Peche areas until range plans are developed.

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"The temporary hold will allow our government to begin the essential work of developing comprehensive range plans in these two important areas," the minister's letter said. "The temporary hold will be in place until the Little Smoky and A la Peche range plans are approved by cabinet, which is expected in 2014."

It's the first time any Alberta government has delayed industrial development until environmental plans are in place, Ms. Campbell said.

"Previous Alberta governments have steadfastly refused any halt in new mineral rights leases on caribou ranges, both outside and, in some cases, inside protected areas. It's a pleasant surprise that this government has deferred new mineral rights sales."

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

The two herds affected by this week's order are among the worst off. At least 95 per cent of the Little Smoky herd's range is already classified as heavily damaged. That degradation had been continuing as Alberta Energy kept selling leases on the tiny remaining fragment of intact forest.

Despite promises to preserve the herds, the province sold off 84 per cent of the land in a relatively undisturbed two-township region of the Little Smoky range between 2009 and 2010.

Activity on those sales is now taking place, said Ken Cowles, a trapper who works in the Little Smoky area.

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"It's going forward huge," he said. "There's so much development there."

Mr. Cowles also praised the government's move, but added it isn't enough on its own.

"This is a huge start. [Now] we have to recover some of the habitat for [caribou]."

Mr. Hughes said the decision was made because of the urgent nature of the situation.

"It's just the need to address this circumstance and to ensure that we try to manage the challenge around caribou herds effectively in the province where we can," he said.

Similar measures are not in the works for any other herds right now, he added.

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"It's very much circumstance-specific and case-by-case analysis."

Ms. Campbell agreed that the moratorium on new sales won't stop any current activity. The next step, she suggested, is to reclaim habitat that's already been damaged and work out ways to get at the resource without further damage.

"We have the ability to access underground oil and gas reservoirs without surface disturbance."

She added that if those steps aren't taken, this week's moratorium will be too little, too late.

"A lot more on-the-ground action still needs to be taken for these caribou herds to survive.

"[The hold's] not actually changing things on the ground, but at least it's not digging the hole deeper and deeper."

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