Conservation groups and First Nations have filed legal action in the hope of forcing Environment Canada to protect Alberta caribou herds after federal findings that the province has failed to do so.

"The federal government has the power and the legal responsibility to act," said Melissa Gorrie of Ecojustice, which is acting on behalf of the David Suzuki Foundation, the Alberta Wilderness Association and the Mikisew and Athabasca Chipewyan First Nations.

The groups have filed an application in Federal Court to force Environment Minister Catherine McKenna to place five caribou herds in northeastern Alberta under an emergency protection order.

A provision in the federal Species At Risk Act compels the minister to protect critical habitat for endangered species, said Gorrie. That habitat has been identified but remains largely unconserved.

Two separate federal studies have identified large conservation gaps, not just in Alberta, but every province. One of the studies was released as recently as December.

Alberta has announced plans for several large parks in that part of the province.

Gorrie said implementation of those plans is stalled. As well, they only protect a "minuscule" amount of critical habitat.

Range plans, which were due in 2017, are still unreleased — delayed by what the provincial government has called economic concerns.

"Alberta understands the importance of protecting critical caribou habitat, while also protecting northern Alberta jobs and communities," said Matt Dykstra, spokesman for Alberta Environment and Parks Thursday.

"We look forward to receiving promised funding from the federal government to support further habitat restoration, improved rearing facilities and an exhaustive socio-economic impact study."

Meanwhile, development continues.

Gorrie said ranges of the five herds vary between 70 and 80 per cent disturbed. Federal guidelines for healthy caribou habitat suggest the maximum is 35 per cent.

Ecojustice has been trying to use legal means to get Ottawa to protect caribou habitat since 2010.

The latest assessment of woodland caribou suggests that 81 per cent of Canada's herds are in decline. Loss of another one-third of the population is expected "in the near term."

The main threat is altered habitat, which reduces a herd's productivity and allows access by predators.

Caribou conservation is often seen to be in direct conflict with forestry and energy and the jobs they generate.

Gorrie said caribou numbers are a good indicator of the health of the boreal forest. She said it's time Ottawa decided to enforce its own law and protect the animals that are on the back of the quarter.

"We're past the point of talking."

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