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The caribou issue has already been examined by regulators considering the Keystone XL pipeline, says TransCanada Corp.NATHAN DENETTE/The Canadian Press

The fate of caribou is emerging as a new battleground between environmentalists and the oil and gas industry.

Alberta conservationists are calling on U.S. environmental groups to decry the plight of caribou in the oil sands region, in hopes of attracting attention to the at-risk species at a time when the United States is nudging Canada toward better environmental performance.

"Things are increasingly desperate for caribou," said Helene Walsh, who works with the Alberta-based Keepers of the Athabasca.

In recent years, the province has authorized the shooting of wolves, which prey on caribou; others have suggested massive pens to protect caribou. But the herds have continued to decline.

Ms. Walsh is now hoping U.S. activist pressure can help, at a time when their government has sent signals suggesting Canada show environmental progress on the oil sands as Washington weighs the Keystone XL pipeline to the U.S. Gulf Coast. On Sunday, thousands of people descended on Washington, D.C., to protest against the controversial pipeline.

TransCanada Corp., which is seeking to build Keystone XL, said the caribou issue has already been examined by regulators in the U.S. and Canada, where permits have already been approved for the pipeline.

"These groups are trying to have issues introduced that are unrelated to rules and regulations in other countries because the facts do not support their claims," TransCanada spokesman Shawn Howard said Tuesday.

"All of the environmental question have been addressed."

According to Canada's caribou recovery strategy, local caribou herds need populations of 300 or more, and at least 65 per cent of their habitat undisturbed, to survive. In Alberta, one of 12 herds has more than 300 animals; on average, 26 per cent of their habitat is undisturbed.

In 2011, several U.S. environmental groups filed a request for Canada to be censured by the U.S. government for "failing to prevent or mitigate the impacts of tar sands extraction on 130 migratory bird species, including whooping cranes, as well as on woodland caribou."

That effort resulted in no public consequences for Canada, although U.S. environmental groups say they are continuing to press wildlife concerns – even if they are secondary to climate worries.

"The caribou issues absolutely need to be considered when thinking about Keystone XL," said Elizabeth Shope, of the New York-based Natural Resources Defense Council. On Tuesday, caribou were featured on the front page of the National Wildlife Federation website.

History has shown the path to environmental change in Canada often travels through the United States. "The highest probability of getting domestic governments to pay attention is to get foreigners concerned and making the ruckus," said Will Horter, a long-time B.C. environmentalist.

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