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A wild caribou roams the tundra in Nunavut in 2009. Environmentalists are asking why government rhetoric on saving caribou habitat isn't matched by what's happening on the ground.

NATHAN DENETTE/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Darcy Handy has been going to a once-untouched area of forest and wetland in northwest Alberta for more than 20 years to hunt, fish and trap and well remembers what it used to be like.

"We always used to see numerous caribou in that area, all the time," he recalls of his one-time hunting grounds southeast of Grande Cache.

No longer.

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"It's more like a wasteland," said Mr. Handy. "It's all cutblocks now, oil and gas roads everywhere. Big change from what it was 20 years ago."

Mr. Handy's concerns are echoed by environmentalists who ask why government rhetoric on saving caribou habitat isn't matched by what's happening on the ground. They point out that both Ottawa and Alberta have committed to preserve the very area currently being hammered by development.

"The lines are already on the map as to what the range is," said Carolyn Campbell of the Alberta Wilderness Association. She points out the federal caribou recovery strategy has been out for more than a year.

"We should be on a path where we're maintaining what we have and restoring what's already disturbed. Instead, local residents are telling us that, on the ground, we're still going in the opposite direction."

Concern over the gradual decline of caribou in northwest Alberta came to a head earlier this year after a Canadian Press investigation found the province had sold industrial leases on nearly all the tiny, undisturbed fraction of land that remains of the Little Smoky herd's range.

That development was occurring despite provincial commitments to preserve habitat and federal plans that set a goal of maintaining or restoring 65 per cent of a herd's range as viable habitat.

A moratorium was placed on new energy development on the Little Smoky range. Forestry companies agreed to defer further harvesting until a plan for the area was drafted.

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But those halts have done nothing to ease the pressure on the adjacent a la Peche range, which is supposed to be part of the same plan.

The a la Peche range is certainly as torn up as the Little Smoky, which is estimated to be 95 per cent disturbed. And more development on it proceeds.

"Everywhere you turn there's cutblocks," said Mr. Handy of the sections of forest harvested for lumber.

At least three new, well-developed roads thrust into a la Peche terrain. One wipes out a caribou gathering point along the Little Smoky River, he said.

"That's where the caribou would always winter. They used to be in there all the time and now there's a high-grade road right through there."

Highway 40, which runs through the range, is signed as a "caribou corridor," which Mr. Handy finds ironic. "There's huge big cutblocks all the way along, right by the caribou sign, actually. It's pretty funny."

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Brady Whittaker of the Alberta Forest Products Association acknowledged that while industry has stayed out of the Little Smoky area, the same can't be said of the a la Peche. But he adds that when the forest is your business, it's hard to avoid wildlife.

"There may be caribou in lots of areas where we are harvesting," he said.

The forestry industry supports efforts to develop a range plan for the area that can accommodate all demands on the landscape and is involved in those discussions, Mr. Whittaker said.

"Nobody respects caribou habitat more than our industry."

Carrie Sancartier of Alberta Environment said a draft plan for the a la Peche and Little Smoky ranges is expected in January.

The a la Peche herd is about 150 animals strong, larger and more stable than the Little Smoky herd. As well, its range extends into the protected Willmore Wilderness Area and Jasper National Park.

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However, the protected parts of its range are mountainous and traditionally only used in summer. Scientists report that the animals are being increasingly forced to use those rugged, inhospitable areas in winter as well.

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