A significant challenge of conservation biology is to preserve species in places where their critical habitat also attracts significant economic interest. The problem is compounded when species distributions occur across large spatial extents. Threatened boreal caribou (Rangifer tarandus caribou) epitomize this problem: their critical habitat encompasses a vast expanse of forest that also supplies much of Canada’s merchantable timber. Boreal caribou were protected under the Canada Species at Risk Act in 2003. We investigated putative drivers of reduced disturbance for caribou habitat since then. Where the cumulative logging footprint slowed within caribou habitat, this has resulted neither from decreases in annual allowable cut of timber nor the creation or expansion of protected areas. Rather, it has fluctuated with the American economy relative to that of Canada. For each $0.05 US lost over the $CAD, 129 km2 of caribou habitat was not disturbed by logging in a given year. Recent population declines have been occurring even though logging typically remained at <70% of allowed levels. Our study raises concerns about how caribou are functionally being conserved under the current application of existing legislation. In this globalized world, the economy of foreign nations is increasingly likely to govern national conservation objectives.