In March, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) released a report titled Evaluating the Taxonomic Status of the Mexican Gray Wolf and the Red Wolf. The report, commissioned by the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) at the behest of Congress, found that the red wolf (Canis rufus) is a taxonomically distinct species. This finding is a key conservation victory—as those seeking to strip Endangered Species Act (ESA) protections from red wolves have long argued that the animal is a coyote subspecies or a gray wolf–coyote hybrid that does not merit an ESA listing. The report’s findings confirm that ESA protections are warranted.
In support of its conclusion, the NASEM report identified morphological, behavioral, dietary, and genetic differences between red wolves, gray wolves, and coyotes. It also identified reproductive isolation mechanisms that separated red wolves from coyotes. For example, both red wolves and coyotes prefer to mate with members of their own species, and red wolves and coyotes generally occupy separate territories when both species are present in an area.
The red wolf was originally listed in 1967 as endangered under a precursor to the ESA. After the species was declared extinct in the wild in 1980, an experimental population of captive-bred wolves was reintroduced into eastern North Carolina in 1987, under USFWS management. The recovery program was initially a striking success and the wild red wolf population grew to an estimated 150 or more individuals. However, the agency has been actively undermining its own recovery program in recent years due to pressure from a few vocal landowners, the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission, and political appointees within the USFWS. Consequently, the wild red wolf population went into steep decline; today, fewer than 30 individuals remain within a drastically scaled-back territory.
Given the NASEM report’s findings, the USFWS has no excuse for not resuming its ESA mandate to protect and restore the red wolf.