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Red Wolf Failure. An Irrevocable Loss Happening on Our Watch.


“What a country chooses to save is what a country chooses to say about itself.”

~ Mollie Beattie, Director, USFWS 1993-1996

The red wolf (Canis rufus) is one of the world’s most endangered wild canids. Once common throughout the southeastern United States, red wolf populations were decimated by the 1960s due to intensive predator control programs and loss of habitat. In 1980, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) declared red wolves extinct in the wild. A few survived only in captivity, their wildness caged.

Over the last three decades, however, there have been efforts to right this wrong: to restore these keystone predators to their rightful places in our landscapes, in our hearts, and in our culture.

As a participant in the Red Wolf Species Survival Plan, the Wolf Conservation Center has been a part of this effort for the past 12 years in giving the rare species a second chance by preventing extinction through captive breeding and supporting the North Carolina Alligator River reintroduction project by producing the wolves for reintroduction. The red wolf reintroduction was among the first instances of a species, considered extinct in the wild, being re-established therein from a captive population. In many ways the red wolf program was the pilot program, serving as a model for subsequent canid reintroductions, particularly those of the gray wolf (Canis lupus) to the American Southwest and to the Yellowstone region. Wolves are an American icon, and make our country’s wild lands whole and healthy. And the red wolf’s “homecoming” remains a significant milestone not only for the rare species, but for endangered wildlife conservation.

But history is repeating itself. Today we face an irrevocable loss and it’s happening on our watch.

In September 2014, the USFWS announced that it would be conducting a review of the red wolf recovery program in eastern North Carolina, per request of the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission (NCWRC), to determine if USFWS should continue, modify, or terminate the program that manages the last remaining wild red wolves on our planet and thus again render the species “Extinct in the Wild.”

While USFWS continues to review the program (a decision is slated for summer of 2016), it has halted all captive-to-wild releases. Also remaining on hold is a key management activity—the release of sterilized coyotes to prevent hybridization. Although the Service reconvened a multi-faceted Red Wolf Recovery Implementation Team (RIT) last fall to address current and future needs to restore red wolves in the wild, the team was recently charged as having no intent of achieving its purported goals. Red wolves remain among the world’s most endangered species. The current estimate puts the only wild population of red wolves at their lowest level in decades.  Only 45 wild red wolves remain.

The value and importance of conserving species and ensuring biodiversity is an accepted axiom of the 21st century. The importance of a keystone predator such as the red wolf to a balanced and resilient ecosystem is undeniable. That our policies should be motivated by these basic scientific principles is a must.

Continued support of the Recovery Program in eastern North Carolina is vital to the long-term prospects of the species. USFWS Director Ashe’s has stated that the agency is committed to use scarce resources for species facing the greatest risk of extinction. Thus, is it not USFWS’s obligation to adhere to the Endangered Species Act by strengthening its efforts to mitigate threats to red wolves in the recovery area (including human intolerance), and supporting the red wolf recovery program in the state?

There is a perceived notion that red wolves are a local or regional issue and that only the residents of North Carolina are impacted by the results of this review. Endangered species recovery, however, is a matter of pride and concern for all U.S. citizens. This is not an isolated issue for North Carolina. If USFWS abandons the program, it would establish a dangerous precedent – effectively allowing a state to refuse recovery efforts for endangered species if they don’t feel like complying.

USFWS is charged by federal law with protecting the endangered species.

USFWS, do your job.