The province says it will protect an additional 1.8 million hectares of woodland caribou range in northern Alberta and work to increase populations in central Alberta — in what one conservation group is calling a “boreal bonanza and foothills fiasco.”

On Wednesday, Environment and Parks Minister Shannon Phillips said the province is moving forward with caribou protection plans for a number of reasons.

“We inherited a bit of a policy logjam on this,” she said in an interview. “Certainly, there were a number of jobs at risk both in the energy and the forestry sector, and we have a looming federal deadline for us to file our range plans for this particular species at risk.

“It made for a number of tough choices.”

Phillips said they engaged a mediator, who consulted with Aboriginal, environmental and industry groups, and have accepted his report for caribou range protection in central and northern Alberta.

It includes several recommendations, including permanent protection of an additional 1.8 million hectares in the Chinchage, Bischto, Yates and Caribou Mountain ranges.

The report was also used to create a draft plan for the Little Smoky and A La Peche ranges that will restore more than 10,000 kilometres of legacy seismic lines and increase the Little Smoky population by reducing their reliance on wolf control through a fenced caribou rearing facility in the area.

One environmental group called the plans a “boreal bonanza and a foothills fiasco.”

“We have mixed feelings today,” said Carolyn Campbell, conservation specialist with the Alberta Wilderness Association. “The northern protection is a superb decision, and the foothills seismic line and access plan promises to eventually restore significant habitat.

“Yet it is truly awful to see the government resort to zoos to fence in wild caribou and propose more old forest be removed and fragmented in the next five years by restarting logging and omitting hard limits on fracking-related land disturbance.”

Some scientists said it’s still a step forward from where the province started.

“From my perspective, this is astonishingly good for the A La Peche and Little Smoky ranges,” said Mark Hebblewhite, a biologist at the University of Montana. “With forestry, they’ve done an amazing job of laying out some hard boundaries. If you overlay some of the GPS telemetry locations from caribou, the areas where they are going to have logging have no caribou.

“They are basically shunting all harvest to the edge of the ranges.”

Hebblewhite said it’s the most comprehensive step forward for caribou that he’s ever seen in Alberta, but he noted that it could all be for nothing if oil and gas tears it all up.

“It was a little disappointing for me, scientifically, to see not as strong language in the A La Peche and Little Smoky plans for restricting energy development in the core critical habitat for caribou,” he said, suggesting that’s a weakness in the plan.

In addition, he said the plan to “create a little zoo” in the middle of the range to raise caribou is flawed.

“There are significant effects of that on the wild caribou,” said Hebblewhite. “There are issues of how are you going to release these semi-domestic caribou after a generation back into the wild, and what is the habitat management in that area?

“It’s just not well thought out. It’s coming from one scientist and it’s not a consensus scientific approach.”

Phillips said the fenced caribou rearing area is a recommendation based on scientific advice.

“We have a really fragmented landscape in that area,” she said. “We need to be able to restore those legacy seismic lines, and trees take the time they take to grow.

“If we are going to be serious about that, and not lose the remaining caribou, we had to take this kind of approach.”

Phillips said, however, that there’s an expert committee guiding the process so they will change their approach if there’s evidence it’s not working to restore the species.

Woodland caribou are considered an indicator of a healthy boreal forest. They are a threatened species both provincially and federally, declining rapidly to about 3,500 across Alberta — mostly due to energy and forestry development.

Under the federal Species At Risk Act, the province must preserve 65 per cent of critical caribou habitat by October 2017.

The draft caribou range plan for Little Smoky and A La Peche is open for public input online until Aug. 5.