Two years ago, red wolves numbered 90–110 in the wild. Victories won by AWI and allies limiting the hunting of coyotes in the wolves’ recovery area in North Carolina were helping to give the wolves a chance to take hold—that is, until the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), in response to pressure from the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission, suddenly halted all red wolf recovery efforts in 2015, announcing that it was conducting an evaluation of the program. Through its neglect and active interference—such as capturing wolves and holding them for weeks or months before releasing them into unfamiliar territory, as well as authorizing private landowners to kill wolves on their land (even if they weren’t actually causing problems)—the agency caused the wild population to drop down to approximately 28 monitored individual wolves in five packs, with only three known breeding pairs.
In September, the USFWS released its much-anticipated decision concerning the future of the red wolf recovery program. It called for the following steps to be taken—steps that will effectively undermine decades of red wolf recovery and threaten the very survival of the species in the wild:
- Reduce the range of the existing experimental population from the five-county recovery area to only federal lands within the Dare County Bombing Range and Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge. This means reducing their habitat from the current 1.7 million acres down to 200,000 acres of public lands in one county.
- Increase the captive breeding population of red wolves from 29 to 52 breeding pairs (or approximately 400 individual animals), without definitively committing to ever introducing these wolves into the wild.
- Develop various documents for the program, including a species status assessment, the legally mandated 5-year review, and a description of other potential sites for wild populations.
The USFWS essentially plans to remove nearly all red wolves from the wild while relegating many to a lifetime of captivity. Several of the scientists hired by the agency indicated that it had used “alarming misinterpretations” of data to falsely state that there exists a need to capture wild wolves in order to save captive populations.
Fortunately, just a few days after this announcement, the US District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina issued a preliminary injunction in response to a case filed by AWI and allies. The USFWS was ordered not to remove (or authorize any private landowners to remove) any red wolves from the wild unless they are causing actual problems, as required by the regulations.
While this decision prevents the removal of the remaining wild red wolves for the time being, this wild population has no hope of recovering unless the agency recommits to the program and reintroduction efforts. It must (1) reinstate a recovery implementation team that includes red wolf biologists, (2) reduce mortality and provide protection through law enforcement efforts, and (3) secure commitment from local officials to aid with conservation efforts, law enforcement, and education.
When the Endangered Species Act was passed, it was not with the hope that species extinction would simply be prevented by keeping a few individuals to live out their lives in zoos. It was to provide for the conservation of species throughout all or significant portions of their ranges and the ecosystems on which they depend.