Updated Wednesday to include response from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Destiny for red wolves may be determined in the courtroom, as the clock is ticking louder for the seven remaining red wolves known to be roaming northeastern North Carolina.
In the most recent in a series of legal action against the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service over its management of the critically endangered species, the Southern Environmental Law Center filed a lawsuit Monday challenging the agency’s claim that it cannot release any more captive wolves into the wild, despite prior success of the management strategy.
“We have been encouraging them to restart their releases for a long time now,” Sierra Weaver, senior attorney at the Center, said in an interview. “But they claim they were bound by this policy. So it was time to go to court.”
Representing nonprofit conservation groups Red Wolf Coalition, Defenders of Wildlife and the Animal Welfare Institute, the law center contends that Fish and Wildlife is violating the Endangered Species Act by failing to take the necessary action to save the wolves. In this case by adding captive-bred wolves to expand the last known wild population of red wolves in the world.
The agency’s rule authorizing reintroduction of wolves from the captive population, now numbering more than 200, “does not include and has never included a limit on the number of red wolves that may be released,” according to the lawsuit.
“The important thing about that is it appeared in the 2018 federal notice for the first time,” Weaver said, calling the restrictive policy “invented.”
Up until then, she said, captive-bred red wolves had been released for 27 years into the red wolf recovery area, which spans 1.7 million acres of public and private land in Beaufort, Dare, Hyde, Tyrrell, Washington counties, including the Dare County Bombing Range and Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge.
In the notice published June 28, 2018, in the Federal Register, Fish and Wildlife explained that changes were needed to reduce conflict, and that the current regulations were ineffective in “fostering coexistence between people and red wolves.”
In addition, the agency said that current regulations “limit the number of red wolves that can be released on the landscape.” The 1986 regulations limit release up to 12 wolves, the notice said, and no additional releases were authorized in subsequent revisions in 1991 and 1995.
In the draft environmental assessment that Fish and Wildlife released in June 2018, which proposes “replacement of the regulations for the nonessential experimental population of red wolves in northeastern North Carolina,” the agency provides more details on how the management approach of the species evolved.
Under provisions of the Endangered Species Act, the red wolf population was designated “nonessential experimental” because there was a protected population in captivity, initially of about 80 animals.
According to the draft environmental assessment, the 1986 rule specified that “8 to 12 red wolves would initially be released on the (Alligator River) refuge.” Four pairs of animals were released in September 1987, and by September 1992, 42 wolves had been released on 15 occasions, resulting in the birth of at least 22 pups.
Although the reintroductions were deemed a successful way to repopulate the species, it was complicated by the growing population expanding its range to private properties.
Further complications developed when coyotes started moving into the recovery area in the mid-1990s. More conflicts developed with landowners, and wolves started breeding with coyotes, creating a hybrid that threatened to undermine the genetic identity of the red wolf. Between 1987 and 2013, there were about 10 poisonings and 85 gunshot deaths of red wolves.
In response to the management challenges, the agency contracted in 2014 with the Wildlife Management Institute to review the reintroduction effort. After reviewing the institute’s report, as well as other information, the document said, Fish and Wildlife decided to realign rule language with management actions, including “release of animals from captivity into the wild beyond the 12 originally evaluated.”
In response to subsequent litigation by the law center in November 2018, the Fish and Wildlife Service suspended further action on the proposed rule. A federal court ruled that the agency had violated the Endangered Species Act by suspending conservation efforts.
In an emailed statement issued Wednesday in response to Coastal Review Online’s inquiry, the agency affirmed its commitment to red wolf recovery and management of the nonessential experimental population.
According to the statement, which was provided by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service spokesperson Jennifer Koches, the agency monitors wolf movement, pack dynamics and the wolves’ general health, as well as promotes public awareness and education through public outreach and partnerships. It also investigates mortalities and performs veterinary care and genetic analysis on the animals.
“We are engaged in recovery efforts and continuing to do so, including updating the Red Wolf Recovery Plan and increasing the captive population to ensure the genetic health of the species and support future reintroductions,” the statement reads.
The agency said it is continuing the trapping and translocation efforts it did last winter to re-establish breeding pairs in the recovery area. It has also contracted with the Conservation Planning Specialist Group to assist in the update of the recovery plan.
Of the seven remaining wolves that are fitted with radio collars, some are approaching old age. Another dozen or so uncollared wolves are also believed to be living in the recovery area. No pups have been born in the wild since 2018.In another federal court ruling in October 2020 by the Center for Biological Diversity, the agency was ordered to complete its updated red wolf management plan by February 2023.
But Weaver said the red wolf may not have that much time to wait.
“Our goal with this lawsuit it to make sure we have wolves on the ground by 2023,” she said. “We are on the brink of extinction now.”
Weaver said that if the management strategies that had proved so successful were brought back, the red wolf can be saved from the brink.
“Fish and Wildlife has done this before,” she said. “They can and should be doing this again — and they know how to.”