Court Asked to Stop US Fish & Wildlife Service from Capturing, Killing Wild Red Wolves

Population down to 45 known wolves after agency ends protective efforts

Chapel Hill, NC—Conservation groups late yesterday asked the US District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina to stop the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) from capturing and killing—and authorizing private landowners to capture and kill—members of the rapidly dwindling population of wild red wolves. The conservation groups—represented in court by the Southern Environmental Law Center—are the Animal Welfare Institute, Defenders of Wildlife, and the Red Wolf Coalition.

Previously, the USFWS stopped key conservation actions and began authorizing private landowners to kill red wolves on their land. The agency also has been capturing wolves throughout the five-county red wolf recovery area in North Carolina, and holding them for weeks or months before releasing them into unfamiliar territory, separated from their mates and pack. This practice has raised concerns for conservation groups and scientists who are worried it is harming individual wolves and the population as a whole.

“The USFWS is charged with conserving and recovering this country’s endangered species, but for red wolves it seems to have them on a path towards extinction,” said Sierra Weaver, senior attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center. “The USFWS says it’s looking at whether to move forward with the population, but we’re worried there’s not going to be any population left if these actions continue. We’re asking the court to step in and save the wild red wolf.”

The groups brought the federal agency to court for its failure to protect the world’s only wild population of red wolves—previously estimated to be over 100 animals. Court filings detail a population that has been halved over the course of two years, as well as the agency’s ongoing actions and inactions that continue to imperil the survival and recovery of the species. As one example of the USFWS’ failure to protect red wolves, the groups cite its 2015 authorization of a private landowner to kill a breeding female who was exhibiting denning behavior, after minimal efforts by the agency to save the animal.

“This species is running out of time. We have a short window to put red wolves back on a path to recovery or we will lose the last wild population in America,” said Jason Rylander, senior attorney for Defenders of Wildlife. “The USFWS needs to get its red wolf program back on track and start taking actions that will help, not hinder, recovery.”

Under the Endangered Species Act, it is unlawful for anyone to “take” (i.e., harass, harm or kill) a red wolf, except in limited circumstances. Federal regulations authorize the USFWS to issue permits to take red wolves on private property after a property owner requests that wolves be removed from their property and the agency abandons efforts to capture them. For 20 years, the USFWS allowed the taking only of “problem wolves”—those that threatened human safety or property. Recently, however, the agency expanded its activities to capture—and in some cases allow private landowners to kill—any wolves that enter private land.

“Before it’s too late for these remaining wolves, the USFWS must rededicate itself to ensuring the survival of America’s rarest wolf and restore the former successful recovery of this endangered species,” said Kim Wheeler, the Red Wolf Coalition’s executive director.

The USFWS announced in June 2015 that it would suspend the reintroduction of red wolves into eastern North Carolina. The agency also stopped its adaptive management for the population. This management program has been critical in reducing hybridization with coyotes.

“It makes absolutely no sense for the USFWS to take a successful reintroduction program like this and actively drive it into the ground,” said Tara Zuardo, a wildlife attorney with the Animal Welfare Institute. “Americans wholeheartedly support red wolves; it's the USFWS’ job to foster recovery of endangered species; now it's time for the agency to do its job."

Red wolves bred in captivity were reintroduced on a North Carolina peninsula within their native range in the late 1980s after the species was declared extinct in the wild. Once common throughout the Southeast, intensive predator control programs and loss of habitat decimated wild red wolf populations.

Note to Editors:
Photographs of red wolves in North Carolina are available for use with appropriate photo credit from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service at

About the Animal Welfare Institute
The Animal Welfare Institute ( is a nonprofit charitable organization founded in 1951 and dedicated to reducing animal suffering caused by people. AWI engages policymakers, scientists, industry, and the public to achieve better treatment of animals everywhere—in the laboratory, on the farm, in commerce, at home, and in the wild.

About Defenders of Wildlife
Defenders of Wildlife is dedicated to the protection of all native animals and plants in their natural communities. With more than 1 million members and activists, Defenders of Wildlife is a leading advocate for innovative solutions to safeguard our wildlife heritage for generations to come. For more information, visit

About the Red Wolf Coalition
The Red Wolf Coalition ( advocates for the long-term survival of red wolf populations by teaching about the red wolf and by fostering public involvement in red wolf conservation.

About the Southern Environmental Law Center
The Southern Environmental Law Center is a regional nonprofit using the power of the law to protect the health and environment of the Southeast (Virginia, Tennessee, North and South Carolina, Georgia, and Alabama). Founded in 1986, SELC's team of nearly 60 legal and policy experts represent more than 100 partner groups on issues of climate change and energy, air and water quality, forests, the coast and wetlands, transportation, and land use.