USFWS Undermines Red Wolf Recovery

There has been a significant reduction in gunshot mortality of red wolves over the last year, ever since coyote hunting was restricted in the wolves’ North Carolina habitat as a result of legal action taken by AWI and allies. Nevertheless, the red wolf remains in dire need of the protections guaranteed to listed species under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). Recent detrimental actions by the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS)—the federal agency tasked with oversight of red wolf recovery—however, indicate that the agency is abandoning its commitment to the successful reintroduction of the species. Therefore, on September 1, AWI, Defenders of Wildlife, and the Red Wolf Coalition notified the USFWS of an intent to sue the agency over its mishandling of the recovery effort.

Among other things, over the last two years the USFWS has provided permits to kill two red wolves, at least one of whom was a female exhibiting denning behavior (indicating that she was pregnant or currently had pups somewhere). This wolf had previously contributed four litters to the population. While the law allows the USFWS in some instances to provide a permit to kill a red wolf, it can only do so in instances where it is deemed absolutely necessary—such as in direct defense of human life, pets, or livestock. Private property owners may also harass red wolves to get the animals to leave their property, provided that the methods used are not lethal or physically injurious to the animals. Additionally, a red wolf may be killed only “after efforts by project personnel [from the USFWS] to capture the wolf have been abandoned” and permission is obtained in writing from the project leader or biologist.

It is this “efforts abandoned” clause that the USFWS has grasped onto as an excuse for these permits, claiming that it provided the landowners with permission to kill these red wolves only because the landowners would not allow the USFWS to come onto their property to relocate the wolves elsewhere.

In summary: The USFWS claims it wants to relocate the wolves. The landowners refuse access to their lands. And the agency feels its only choice at that point is to issue the kill permits? That does not sound like an agency intent on furthering red wolf conservation. Certainly, it does not indicate much of an effort to save these particular wolves. Even worse, the USFWS has not been able to cite any problem or offending behavior from the animals in question. Expending such paltry effort to preserve the life of a breeding female who was not known to be causing problems, in fact, might be considered the exact opposite of reasonable efforts to recover the species.

At the same time, the USFWS suddenly started quoting a total population of 50–75 red wolves in North Carolina—an abrupt and unexplained decline from the previously quoted 90–110 individuals. And, in addition to giving out permits to kill red wolves in the face of estimates that—if true—would indicate that the population was in a more precarious position than previously supposed, the USFWS also announced that it would cease reintroductions of wolves into the recovery area until the agency is able to assess the “feasibility of recovery” for the species.

Red wolf reintroductions—specifically, pup cross-fostering—have been a crucial part of keeping the population at the status quo for the last 25+ years. Wolves will sometimes die not only due to gunshot, but also from other causes such as mange or vehicle strikes. Bringing in red wolf pups bred in facilities such as the Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium in Tacoma, Washington, helps offset some of these losses. Personnel would place the zoo-bred pups in dens with other pups, enabling a wild mother to adopt them, thus contributing to the population’s overall numbers each year. Also, in the past, private landowners who wanted red wolves on their property could work with the USFWS and participate in the conservation program. This has been the case for some farmers, in particular, who feel that the wolves scare off and prey on species such as nutria that would otherwise destroy their crops.

It appears that the USFWS, for reasons unknown, has decided to ignore the hundreds of thousands of comments that it has received in support of the red wolf recovery program from local landowners and citizens all over the country, and instead implement a slow death for the program simply because the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission—which apparently exists solely to serve hunters and trappers—wants the program to go away. The antagonism toward red wolves is especially frustrating given that red wolves—smaller, shier, and more elusive than gray wolves—tend not to get mixed up in human-wildlife conflicts, preferring instead to steer well clear of humans and their livestock.

Through the notice of intent to sue, AWI and its allies have given the USFWS 60 days to remedy these problems, or face a lawsuit. Specifically, the notice requests that the agency immediately stop granting permits for landowners to kill red wolves on private land. It also requests that the USFWS conduct a status review of the species, as is required under the ESA every five years. The most recent one was done in 2007.

There is hope for these wolves—they are resilient—but whether the agency tasked with their recovery is also resilient remains to be seen. A population of 50–75 can bounce back in the same way that the original 14 red wolves reintroduced into North Carolina in 1987 were able to grow to 130 by 2006. However, in order to do this, they need the oversight of a USFWS committed to complying with the ESA and recovering an imperiled species, rather than one that is apparently hell-bent on bowing to a state agency in the thrall of special interest groups.

Read more articles about: