Center for Biological Diversity

For Immediate Release, February 13, 2019

Contacts:  Andrea Santarsiere, Center for Biological Diversity, (303) 854-7748,
Mike Peterson, The Lands Council, (509) 209-2406,
Gwen Dobbs, Defenders of Wildlife, (202) 772-0269,

Lawsuit Launched to Protect Dwindling Mountain Caribou

Recently Extinct in Lower 48 States, Caribou Badly Need Protection to Return

SANDPOINT, Idaho— Conservation groups issued a formal notice today 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

“Fish and Wildlife Service officials sat on their hands for decades while the last wild caribou in the lower 48 states went extinct,” said Andrea Santarsiere, a senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity. “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. The agency also failed to reconsider designating protected critical habitat for the caribou after the groups involved in today’s action successfully challenged a previous designation that only included a small fraction of the caribou’s former range in the United States.  

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. The caribou are being held in captivity. It is hoped they will breed and eventually be released back into the wild. The caribou need protection of their habitat for any such release to be successful. 

“It’s a tragedy that Southern mountain caribou have been allowed to blink out in the lower 48 states,” said Jason Rylander, senior counsel at Defenders of Wildlife. “With the right protections in place we can bring them back — and we should.”

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 the effort was abandoned without explanation, allowing the Selkirk herd to languish and 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 the groups, but the Service has yet to issue a new critical habitat designation. 

Mountain caribou are an “ecotype” of the more widespread woodland caribou. They are uniquely adapted to life in the very snowy mountains of British Columbia and the northernmost areas of the northern Rockies in the lower 48 states. 

The caribou have hooves the size of dinner plates that act like snowshoes. The animals can survive all winter eating arboreal lichens found on the branches of old-growth trees only accessible in winter. Their habitat has become increasingly fragmented by roads and other development. 

Adding insult to injury, the increased power and popularity of snowmobiles has meant more and more people are infringing on the caribou’s alpine habitat. Not only do snowmobiles disturb the caribou, they also create compacted trails that provide predators access to caribou during winter.  

The Center for Biological Diversity is a national, nonprofit conservation organization with more than 1.4 million members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places.

The Lands Council has been working to protect wild forests, rare wildlife and rivers in the Inland Northwest for over 35 years.

Defenders of Wildlife is dedicated to the protection of all native animals and plants in their natural communities. With over 1.8 million members and activists, Defenders of Wildlife is a leading advocate for innovative solutions to safeguard our wildlife heritage for generations to come. For more information, visit and follow us on Twitter@DefendersNews.

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