With hooves as big as dinner plates and an ability to survive on lichen alone, mountain caribou are perfectly adapted to the harshness of deep winter snow.
What they haven’t adapted to is having snowmobiles tear through their habitat in the high mountains of the northern Rockies, or logging that cuts down the old, lichen-covered trees they need to live.
The last of America’s wild reindeer in the Lower 48 states were declared extinct late last year. This should never have happened. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service knew the herd was close to disappearing but did nothing.
Instead, British Columbia officials recently penned the few remaining Southern Mountain caribou in the Selkirk Mountains to prevent the species from disappearing forever.
But it’s not too late to bring these magnificent animals back to the U.S. For that to happen, we need the Fish and Wildlife Service to maintain protections for their habitat. And we need a concerted recovery effort that includes moving animals back to northern Idaho and northeast Washington.
The southern Selkirk herd of caribou, which has crossed the border between British Columbia and Idaho for eons, has been protected 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 Southern Mountain caribou, which includes a number of herds in Canada.
Knowing the Selkirk herd was part of this larger group, the Service proposed protecting Southern Mountain caribou in the lower 48 states as threatened. They are listed as endangered in Canada.
But the Service never finalized protections. The agency also failed to reconsider designating protected critical habitat for the caribou – even after groups, including the Center for Biological Diversity where I work, successfully challenged a previous designation that only included a small fraction of the caribou’s former range in the United States.
Agency officials sat on their hands for decades while the last wild caribou in the Lower 48 states went extinct.
That’s why the Center and other organizations recently filed a notice of intent to sue the Fish and Wildlife Service for dropping the ball on protecting Southern Mountain caribou.
For now, the last remaining caribou in the Lower 48 states are being held in captivity with the hopes they will breed and eventually be released back into the wild. But the animals need their habitat protected for releases to be successful.
If we’re going to recover America’s reindeer, they need the strong protections of the Endangered Species Act, one of the nation’s most effective environmental laws. The act has saved 99 percent of all plants and animals under its care from extinction.
Without those lifesaving safeguards, caribou in the Lower 48 states will likely be lost forever.
Andrea Santarsiere is a senior attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity. She lives in Victor, Idaho.
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