Court Stops US Fish & Wildlife Service from Jeopardizing Red Wolf Survival

Photo by Jeff Goulden
Photo by Jeff Goulden

Chapel Hill, NC—Today, a federal judge issued an order declaring that the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) violated the Endangered Species Act and the National Environmental Policy Act in its rollback of protections for the world’s only wild population of red wolves, who live in eastern North Carolina. US District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina Chief Judge Terrence W. Boyle also made permanent the court’s September 29, 2016, order stopping the USFWS from capturing and killing red wolves and authorizing private landowners to do the same.

In examining the USFWS’s previous decisions, Judge Boyle wrote that “taken together, these actions go beyond the agency’s discretion and operate to violate [the USFWS’] mandate to recover this species in the wild.”

“For four years now, the US Fish and Wildlife Service has been dismantling one of the most successful predator reintroductions in US history,” said Sierra Weaver, senior attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center, which, along with the Animal Welfare Institute, the Red Wolf Coalition and Defenders of Wildlife, sued the USFWS. “The service knows how to protect and recover the red wolf in the wild, but it stopped listening to its scientists and started listening to bureaucrats instead. The law doesn’t allow the agency to just walk away from species conservation, like it did here.”

“The district court’s ruling today makes it clear that the USFWS’s recent management decisions have failed to protect the red wolf population,” said Johanna Hamburger, wildlife attorney for the Animal Welfare Institute. “Scientists have warned that if the USFWS continues to ignore the recovery needs of the red wolf, these animals may once again be extinct in the wild by 2024. The court has ruled that this is unacceptable and that the USFWS has a duty under the Endangered Species Act to implement proactive conservation measures to achieve species recovery.”

The groups sued the USFWS in 2015 over its decision to allow red wolves that were not causing any problems to be shot and killed by private landowners, even as it rolled back conservation measures that had helped the red wolf population increase from 16 animals in 1987 to more than 130 in 2016. Since the USFWS abandoned its red wolf recovery responsibilities, the red wolf population has plummeted over the last four years to as few as 24 known red wolves in the wild today.

“Support for red wolf protection has been overwhelming,” said Jason Rylander, senior staff attorney for Defenders of Wildlife. “But the US Fish and Wildlife Service has ignored public support and moved forward with a proposal that will doom the species to extinction. Today’s decision by the court to protect red wolves from being shot and killed offers a glimmer of hope for species recovery and new energy to make this program successful once again.”

The USFWS attempted to avoid court action on the conservation groups’ lawsuit by proposing a new rule in June of 2018 to restrict wild red wolves to one National Wildlife Refuge and a bombing range in eastern North Carolina, while allowing the immediate killing of any wolves that live on or wander into nonfederal lands. Previously, these wolves could roam a designated 1.7 million-acre, five-county Red Wolf Recovery Area.

Conservation groups opposed this proposal, arguing for an alternative that would reinstate previous successful management measures. “Rolling back protections is the opposite of what this species needs,” said Kim Wheeler, executive director of the Red Wolf Coalition. “The court’s ruling today makes clear that the USFWS must recommit to red wolf recovery and resume its previously successful management policies and actions.”

The USFWS proposal would reduce the red wolf recovery area by nearly 90 percent. In 2016, a group of 30 scientists condemned such a scenario because the limited area proposed by the USFWS could not support a viable population of red wolves and its proposal was inconsistent with the best available science.

Virtually all—99.9 percent—of the more than 108,000 public comments received by the USFWS expressed opposition to the agency’s proposed rule and favored strong federal protections for red wolves instead. North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper also spoke out in support of the continued recovery of the nation’s only wild population of endangered red wolves.

Fewer than 50 comments—with 13 of these coming from a single real estate developer—supported the USFWS’ proposal to restrict red wolves to federal lands in Dare County.

Before the USFWS began dismantling successful conservation actions, the red wolf recovery program served as a model for reintroduction efforts and was widely celebrated as a success for 25 years. Once common throughout the Southeast, intensive predator control programs and loss of habitat drove the red wolf to extinction in the wild in the late 1970s. In an attempt to recover the population, red wolves bred in captivity were reintroduced in the late 1980s on a North Carolina peninsula within their native range.

Media Contact Information

Margie Fishman, (202) 446-2128, [email protected]

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. For more information, visit Follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram for updates and other important animal protection news.

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 Southern Environmental Law Center
For more than 30 years, the Southern Environmental Law Center has used the power of the law to champion the environment of the Southeast. With over 70 attorneys and nine offices across the region, SELC is widely recognized as the Southeast’s foremost environmental organization and regional leader. SELC works on a full range of environmental issues to protect our natural resources and the health and well-being of all the people in our region.