Conservation groups issued a formal notice in February of their intent to sue the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for failing to finalize endangered species protections and designate critical habitat for Southern Mountain caribou. Andrea Santarsiere, a senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity, says “If we’re going to get America’s beloved reindeer back, they need the strong protections of the Endangered Species Act.”

The southern Selkirk herd of caribou, which formerly crossed the border between British Columbia and Idaho, has been protected as endangered under the Endangered Species Act since 1983. In 2014 the Fish and Wildlife Service determined that the herd is actually part of a larger population known as the Southern Mountain caribou, which includes a number of herds in Canada, and proposed protecting them as threatened. (They are listed as endangered in Canada.) The Service, however, never finalized protection for Southern Mountain caribou.

Late last year Canada brought the last animals from the southern Selkirk herd into captivity, marking the loss of all caribou from the lower 48 states. It is hoped the captive animals will breed and eventually be released back into the wild, but conservation groups maintain that the caribou need protection of their habitat for any such release to be successful. Like many boreal species, caribou once had a broad range in the lower 48, including the northern Rockies in Washington, Idaho and Montana, the upper Midwest, and the northeast.

By 1983, when they were protected under the Endangered Species Act, caribou were limited to just the northern Rockies and declining fast. In the 1990s the Fish and Wildlife Service augmented the Selkirk herd with caribou from Canada, which helped the population grow to more than 100 animals. But that effort didn’t continue, and the Selkirk herd began to decline. 

In 2011, following a petition and litigation from conservation groups, the Service proposed designating more than 375,000 acres of critical habitat for caribou in Idaho and Washington. The proposal was consistent with the recovery plan for the southern Selkirk herd, which identified a slightly larger area as necessary for recovery. In 2012, however, the Service finalized a designation that only included only about 30,000 acres. This massive cut in critical habitat was successfully challenged by conservation groups, but the Service has yet to issue a new critical habitat designation. //