The red wolf (Canis rufus) has had a perilous journey on the road to recovery. Once distributed throughout the eastern and southcentral United States, intensive predator control programs and habitat degradation drove them to extinction in the wild by 1980. Seeking to save the species, the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) rounded up 14 of the last known survivors from Louisiana and Texas and placed them in a captive breeding program.
By 1987, enough red wolves had been bred in captivity to begin reintroducing them into the wild, and USFWS selected the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge in eastern North Carolina as the reintroduction site (based on the wolves’ historic range, the abundance of vegetation and deer, and the notable absence of coyotes and dense human populations).
The reintroduced wolves were classified as a “nonessential experimental population.” Experimental populations are treated as threatened species under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). As such, although red wolves are generally protected by the ESA’s prohibition on unlawful taking, the prohibition is subject to certain exceptions—for example, private landowners can take wolves if the wolves are in the act of killing livestock or pets. These exceptions were established precisely so that the local public would accept the proposed reintroduction of red wolves.
The red wolf recovery area now encompasses approximately 1.7 million acres of land in five eastern North Carolina counties—Dare, Tyrell, Hyde, Beaufort, and Washington. Over time, the wolf population in this area increased to approximately 130 individuals. In the last decade, however, the population has suffered a serious decline, and is currently estimated at 90–110.
The arrival of coyotes to North Carolina during the 1980s brought additional problems for the wolves. Coyotes and red wolves are very similar in outward appearance. This similarity proved a serious threat when—from 1993 through 2012—the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission (NCWRC) declared open season, with no bag limits, on coyotes during daylight hours. During this time, wolves were killed at a rate of 7–10 percent of their entire population each year. Hunters sometimes called in their kills—stating that they shot at what looked like a coyote from afar, only to discover (based on the USFWS tracking collar the wolves wear) that they had killed a red wolf.
Although stable wolf territories can prevent coyote infiltration, at least two breeding wolves and their offspring are needed to hold a territory. In unstable situations, red wolves will sometimes hybridize with coyotes, threatening the survival of the red wolf as a distinct species. To prevent this, USFWS implements a “placeholder” strategy, wherein certain coyotes that live near the red wolves are sterilized and returned to their territories until they are replaced or displaced by red wolves. These placeholder coyotes cannot breed with other coyotes or with red wolves, and further serve to exclude other coyotes or hybrids from the territory.
In the spring of 2012, NCWRC further endangered the wolves by proposing to open up the entire state to coyote hunting at night. Red wolves are active at night—during which time they would be virtually indistinguishable from coyotes to even the most practiced observer.
AWI fought the proposed night hunting rules in state court in late 2012, and succeeded in delaying the rules until July 2013. AWI and its co-plaintiffs then sued NCWRC in federal court, arguing that the commission was causing the unlawful take of red wolves—in violation of the ESA—by authorizing coyote hunting, day and night, within the red wolf recovery area through its rules, licensing, and permitting.
On May 13, 2014, Judge Terrence W. Boyle ruled in our favor, enjoining all coyote hunting, day and night, in the recovery area. Judge Boyle stated in his ruling that “By authorizing coyote hunting in the five-county red wolf recovery area, and in particular by authorizing coyote hunting during all seasons and at any time day or night, the Commission has increased the likelihood that a red wolf will be shot, or that a breeding pair will be dismantled or a placeholder coyote killed.”
This decision is important not only to the red wolves, but to every reintroduced population of endangered species. Judge Boyle pointed out that it was Congress’s clear mandate to protect species nearing extinction, not create a second-class citizenship distinguishing nonessential experimental populations from other species protected by the ESA. He reasoned that “By designating the red wolf as protected and dedicating funding and efforts for more than twenty-five years in a program to rehabilitate the once-nearly extinct species, Congress has repeatedly demonstrated that it has chosen to preserve the red wolf—not simply to let inaction determine its fate—and it is not for this Court to permit activities that would have an effect counter to this goal.” The judge also indicated that promoting breeding pairs of red wolves would be a better deterrent to the increase in coyote population than would an increase in coyote hunting, noting that increased lethal control of coyotes in other states had not reduced their populations.
Sadly, in spite of this giant step forward for red wolf recovery, the battle is not over. Instead of embracing the return of the red wolf and acknowledging its rightful place in the local ecosystem, NCWRC has responded to the injunction by denying sterilization permits for coyotes in the recovery area (in an apparent attempt to sabotage the recovery program), and has urged USFWS to reevaluate the program with a view to removing the wolves. It is up to USFWS to stand up for the red wolf and continue what has been one of the most successful reintroduction programs in the country.
We need your help to show that the American public supports the red wolf and the efforts of USFWS to protect and recover this critically endangered species, and that we do not want these wolves to be exterminated once again from their native lands. Please contact USFWS and let it know you strongly support efforts to recover red wolves in North Carolina: https://awionline.org/action-ealerts/speak-red-wolves