Woodland caribou in northeast British Columbia are headed for extinction and could become the first subpopulation of a species to vanish in Canada while under government protection.

Researchers from the University of Northern B.C. and the province say five herds are collapsing even though the government is pursuing a recovery strategy that includes captive breeding, habitat protection and predator control.

“Currently, we are observing the decline, extirpation, and perhaps extinction of several evolutionary significant units of woodland caribou (Rangifer tarandus caribou), an iconic and cultural keystone species,” states the paper by Chris Johnson and Libby Ehlers, both of UNBC, and Dale Seip, of the provincial Ecosystem Protection and Sustainability branch.

“At current rates of habitat loss and population decline, these caribou, a significant component of Canada’s biodiversity, are unlikely to persist,” concludes the paper. “Although the factors leading to extinction are complex, the cumulative impacts of industrial development are a correlative if not causative factor.”

Last year, B.C. launched a controversial wolf cull, saying it was necessary to save dwindling caribou populations, but Dr. Johnson’s study suggests predation plays a secondary role to habitat loss.

The study found that industrial development, including logging, oil and gas drilling and pipeline and road construction, has fractured caribou habitat.

For several years, the B.C. government has been pursuing a caribou-recovery strategy that includes setting aside 2.2 million hectares of land to protect habitat.

Despite that, the Burnt Pine herd became locally extinct in 2009, and some other herds are down to less than 50 animals.

Under the federal Species at Risk Act, provincial governments are required to protect “evolutionarily significant” subpopulations, which are known as Designatable Units.

“We hypothesize that this generation of resource managers and conservation professionals will observe the extinction of this evolutionarily significant faunal group. If realized, this would be the first empirically documented extinction of a mammalian DU in Canada,” the study states.

In an e-mail, Steve Thomson, Minister of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations for B.C., said the government “recognizes that habitat restoration and protection are a necessary element of recovering caribou herds. However, we also know that habitat protection is not enough. That’s why we’re also undertaking wolf-control measures.”

Mr. Thomson said it will take five years to determine if the predator-control program works. He also said any proponent of development in the Peace region is required to set aside four hectares of land for every hectare disturbed.

But Craig Pettitt, a director of the Valhalla Wilderness Society, one of several environmental groups that a decade ago warned of a caribou collapse, said the new research proves the government’s protection strategy isn’t working.

“In the South Peace, we now have scientific evidence that caribou are disappearing because of industrial development in their habitat,” he said. “What needs to be done is we have to halt the destruction of their habitat”

Mr. Pettitt said the government has largely saved high-elevation land, which has little or no logging value, while allowing development in the rich valley bottoms, in effect letting resource values trump wildlife protection.

“The government has been able to create a sham with its species-at-risk work by always focusing strictly on [saving] … the high-elevation habitat where there is the least [industrial] incursion,” he said.

In a joint statement, several other environmental groups declared that “culling predators without sufficient habitat protection is futile.”