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A Woodland caribou bull is seen in this undated handout photo.Canadian Press/Handout

For years, first nations have pointed to salmon and sea life to argue that a spill from the proposed Northern Gateway pipeline would damage wildlife important for both cultural and culinary reasons.

Now, environmental groups are warning of a threat to another animal: caribou.

The 1,172-kilometre pipeline, which would cut a narrow slice across the northern half of British Columbia, would clear trees from habitat important to caribou species already considered threatened, environmental groups argued this week before the National Energy Board, which is reviewing the proposed $6-billion Enbridge project.

Pipelines are buried in "right-of-ways" that are typically 25- to 30-metre-wide lines cleared across the landscape. For Gateway, the great majority of those right-of-ways lie alongside existing pipelines and forestry roads, or travel through areas of clear-cut forest.

But the pipeline route will also add to the amount of land disturbed to make way for development, and stands to further hurt caribou, argues Chris Tollefson, executive director of the University of Victoria Environmental Law Centre.

"For caribou, a big problem is they don't like to cross big open linear disturbances because wolves are smart," he said Wednesday, after questioning Enbridge on behalf of BC Nature and Nature Canada earlier this week. "Wolves hang out at the edge of those disturbances, and an open linear disturbance like that is like a bowling alley: They just chase the caribou down."

Gateway's current route passes through the ranges of at least five herds of caribou, which are among the most threatened species in Canada. Populations are in decline in Alberta, B.C. and the Northwest Territories; one B.C. group is down to a single surviving member.

But Enbridge, in testimony before the NEB, countered that it has studied its impact on caribou, and that in places its efforts to limit access to remote areas will actually boost habitat.

"In some cases, with the success of that program, we hope to improve the range rather than decrease its suitability," said Paul Anderson, a biologist who is Gateway's director of environment. Besides, Enbridge added, the narrow pipeline route – which will see little activity once it is built – travels through a region already heavy with development. "Something in the range of about 55 per cent of the right-of-way is within the 150 metres of an existing linear access feature," said Jeffrey Green, a senior principal with Stantec Consulting, which has been hired by Enbridge.

And, he said, "we're looking at another 40 per cent of the right-of-way goes through [forestry] cut blocks."

Still, in at least one area on the Gateway route, forestry has been halted to protect caribou. Environmentalists have argued that Enbridge is underestimating the impact it will have on caribou – and those who study the species say adding greater disturbance stands to further damage the animals. Pipeline right-of-ways can improve access into areas for moose and deer, bringing with them increased numbers of wolves that can then prey on caribou. Plus, caribou tend to stay away from parts of the forest that have been cut.

Scientific literature suggests that "linear disturbances actually contribute to population decline," said Elena Jones, a wildlife biologist with Resources North, a joint government-industry organization based in Prince George, B.C. She has studied caribou in the region for a decade. "They don't co-exist well with development," she said.

Some groups are already falling rapidly. In 2008, biologists estimated the Bearhole-Redwillow herd, whose range straddles the Gateway route just west of the B.C.-Alberta boundary, numbered 80. By 2012, it had fallen to 22, and only 72 per cent of the remaining animals are expected to survive each year. If trends persist, it may no longer exist by the time Gateway is built later this decade.

Another herd is in a dramatically different situation: The Quintette population lives southwest of Tumbler Ridge, B.C. In 2008, it contained 173 to 218 animals; recent surveys suggests its "population has been stable or slowly increasing over the past decade." Because the Quintette tend to reside in high alpine areas, a project like Gateway would pose "probably not such a huge impact," Ms. Jones said.