Protection of Red Wolves

Protection of red wolves - Photo by Jesse McCarty

Since 2012, AWI and other groups have initiated four lawsuits to protect the red wolf (Canis rufus), the most endangered canid in the world, and one of the rarest mammals.

Designated as an endangered species in 1967, the red wolf was declared extinct in the wild in 1980. In 1987, an experimental population of red wolves was reintroduced into eastern North Carolina within the designated five county Red Wolf Recovery Area (recovery area), which includes Dare, Tyrrel, Hyde, Washington, and Beaufort counties. From 2002 to 2014, the wild red wolf population consistently numbered over 100 animals. However, this population has declined precipitously in recent years, to fewer than 7 collared animals. This inexcusable slide toward extinction is due to a combination of actions taken by the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission (NCWRC) and mismanagement by the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), the agency charged with recovering the red wolf under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).

The first and second lawsuits, initiated in 2012 and 2013, were brought against the NCWRC to challenge its decision to allow coyote hunting in areas occupied by red wolves, which are easily mistaken for coyotes. Both of these lawsuits were resolved in favor of plaintiffs. The third lawsuit, initiated in 2015, was brought against the USFWS for issuing permits that allowed landowners to kill any red wolf on their private land, as well as for discontinuing programs that were vital to maintaining the red wolf population. In 2018, the court held that USFWS violated the ESA and the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), and awarded AWI and our co-plaintiffs a permanent injunction, which prevented USFWS from taking red wolves without first demonstrating the wolves are a threat to the safety of humans, livestock, or pets. The fourth lawsuit, which was filed in November 2020, was brought against the USFWS for violating the ESA and the Administrative Procedure Act by failing to use its authority to further red wolf recovery and failing to insure that its actions are not likely to jeopardize the continued existence of the red wolf. More information on each of these lawsuits appears below. For additional information on red wolves, please visit our red wolves page.

First Lawsuit Against North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission (2012)

2012 Case Name: Red Wolf Coalition, Defenders of Wildlife, and Animal Welfare Institute v. North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission, et al., Case No. 12-cv-12626

Nature of Case: In September 2012, AWI and other groups brought suit against the NCWRC over its decision—via a temporary rulemaking procedure—to allow hunting of coyotes at night with artificial lights on public and private lands throughout North Carolina, including in the area inhabited by the only wild population of red wolves. The lawsuit alleged that the NCWRC violated North Carolina’s Administrative Procedure Act when it adopted this temporary rule, which drastically increased the likelihood that red wolves would be injured or killed due to their close resemblance to coyotes. The Wake County Superior Court suspended this temporary rule in November 2012, and granted injunctive relief in favor of plaintiffs, enjoining the NCWRC from allowing night hunting of coyotes within the recovery area.

Court: Superior Court for Wake County

Plaintiffs: Animal Welfare Institute; Defenders of Wildlife; Red Wolf Coalition

Defendants: North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission; Gordon S. Myers, Executive Director, North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission

Current Status: Closed

Selected Pleadings:

Second Lawsuit Against North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission (2013)

2013 Case Name: Red Wolf Coalition, Defenders of Wildlife, and Animal Welfare Institute v. North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission, et al. Case No. 13-cv-0060

Nature of Case: The 2012 victory applied only to the temporary rule regarding night hunting of coyotes. AWI and co-plaintiffs still had to address the permanent coyote hunting rule that went into effect in 2013, which authorized coyote hunting without a permit during the daytime and with a permit at nighttime in the recovery area. Even during the day, distinguishing between a coyote and a red wolf is difficult. We therefore brought suit in October 2013, arguing that, by authorizing the shooting of coyotes within the recovery area, the NCWRC was causing unlawful “take” (e.g., harassing, harming, hunting, or killing) of red wolves, which violated the ESA.

On May 13, 2014, the court issued a preliminary injunction blocking the NCWRC’s authorization of coyote hunting in the recovery area. In October 2014, AWI and our co-plaintiffs entered into an agreement with the NCWRC to settle the case. This agreement outlined significant steps to protect red wolves in North Carolina, including banning coyote hunting at night throughout the recovery area and during the day on public lands, except in limited circumstances. It also required the issuance of permits to kill coyotes on private lands, mandated reporting of all kills, and prohibited coyote contest hunts throughout the recovery area. Overall, the settlement aims to continue to decrease threats posed by indiscriminate coyote hunting, while also addressing the concerns of local private landowners and state and federal agencies that are in charge of red wolf recovery. Since this agreement was finalized, the number of red wolves killed from gunshot wounds dropped substantially.

Court: US District Court, Eastern District of North Carolina

Plaintiffs: Animal Welfare Institute; Defenders of Wildlife; Red Wolf Coalition, represented by the Southern Environmental Law Center

Defendants: North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission; Gordon S. Myers, Executive Director, North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission

Case Status: Closed

Selected Pleadings:

First Lawsuit Against US Fish and Wildlife Service (2015)

2015 Case Name: Red Wolf Coalition, Defenders of Wildlife, and Animal Welfare Institute v. United States Fish and Wildlife Service, et al., Case No. 15-cv-0042

Nature of Case: In 2015, AWI and others sued the USFWS for authorizing landowners to kill red wolves on their land that did not threaten the safety of humans, livestock, or pets, for removing wild wolves from private land, and for discontinuing programs that were vital for maintaining the red wolf population, including pup fostering and coyote sterilization. AWI and its co-plaintiffs argued that these actions violated both the ESA and the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), as well as USFWS’s own regulations.

In 2016, the court issued a preliminary injunction barring the USFWS from taking (harming, wounding, killing, etc.) red wolves, either directly or by authorizing landowners to do so, without first demonstrating that such red wolves are a threat to human safety or the safety of livestock or pets. In November 2018, the court entered an order that made the preliminary injunction permanent. The court ruled that the USFWS’s actions violated the ESA’s mandate to recover red wolves in the wild by failing to provide for their conservation and that the agency failed to administer the Red Wolf Recovery Program in furtherance of the purposes of the ESA. The court determined that these failures were largely the result of political interference, not sound science. The court also ruled that the USFWS’s actions violated NEPA.

The USFWS argued that the court could not properly rule on plaintiffs’ claims because of a new rule that the agency is finalizing. Although the court rejected this argument, the proposed rule, if finalized, would further undermine red wolf conservation by confining red wolves to the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge and the Dare County Bombing Range. This would reduce the existing red wolf recovery area by 90 percent, to an area within a single county that could support fewer than 15 wolves. It would also eliminate protections for any wolves that left the area, such that any red wolves on private and state lands could be shot without consequence. This rule, which plaintiffs commented on in July 2018, was expected to be finalized by June 2019. The agency has, to date, failed to do so. Instead, since the Court ruled in Plaintiffs’ favor in November 2018, the USFWS has taken little action to address the declining wild red wolf population.

Court: US District Court, Eastern District of North Carolina

Plaintiffs: Red Wolf Coalition, Defenders of Wildlife, and Animal Welfare Institute

Defendants: The United States Fish and Wildlife Service; Dan Ashe, in his official capacity as Director of the United States Fish and Wildlife Service; Cynthia K. Dohner, in her official capacity as Regional Director of the United States Fish and Wildlife Service Southeast Region

Case Status: Closed

Selected Pleadings:

Second Lawsuit Against US Fish and Wildlife Service (2020)

2020 Case Name: Red Wolf Coalition, Defenders of Wildlife, and Animal Welfare Institute v. United States Fish and Wildlife Service, et al., Case No. 20-cv-0075

Nature of Case: In November 2020, AWI and others sued the USFWS for adopting a new interpretation of the red wolf 10(j) rule, which the agency now argues does not authorize the release of wolves from the captive population into the wild or the sterilization of coyotes to address hybridization. This interpretation represents a significant departure from the USFWS’s former understanding and longstanding practice of releasing captive-born red wolves into the wild on an ongoing basis for over 25 years. AWI’s lawsuit seeks to require the USFWS to reverse this new interpretation. The complaint alleges the agency is violating the ESA by failing to use its authority to further red wolf recovery and failing to insure that its actions are not likely to jeopardize the continued existence of the red wolf. The new interpretation also violates the Administrative Procedure Act because it departs from the agency’s past practice without adequate explanation. Scientists have warned that if current management practices continue, red wolves could be extinct in the wild by 2024.

Selected Pleadings:

Court: US District Court, Eastern District of North Carolina

Plaintiffs: Red Wolf Coalition, Defenders of Wildlife, and Animal Welfare Institute

Defendants: The United States Fish and Wildlife Service; Aurelia Skipwith, in her official capacity as Director of the United States Fish and Wildlife Service; Leopoldo Miranda, in his official capacity as Regional Director of the United States Fish and Wildlife Service Southeast Region

Case Status: Ongoing

 

Selected Case Media:

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