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Scientific Report Finds Red Wolf and Mexican Gray Wolf as Taxonomically Valid

Is the red wolf a distinct species or, as critics in North Carolina have long contended, a hybrid unworthy of Endangered Species Act protection? What about the Mexican gray wolf – is the lobo a “real” subspecies?

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) recognizes both as valid and lists each as endangered under the federal Endangered Species Act (ESA).

Although politicians should leave decisions about whether a species is deserving of protection to scientists and experts at wildlife agencies – these questions were posed by some members of Congress seeking to remove federal ESA protections the rare and at-risk wolves.

In a provision tucked away in the 2018 must-pass budget bill last March, Congress ordered the USFWS to get an independent analysis of whether red wolves and Mexican gray wolves are a taxonomically valid species and subspecies, respectively.

Over the past year, an expert panel appointed by the National Academies of Sciences (NAS), Engineering, and Medicine has been conducting an analysis of scientific literature to answer the following two questions:

  1. Is the Red wolf a taxonomically valid species?
  2. Is the Mexican gray wolf a taxonomically valid subspecies?

In its new report released today, Evaluating the Taxonomic Status of the Mexican Gray Wolf and the Red Wolf, NAS confirms that both red wolves and Mexican gray wolves are indeed valid.

“A majority of experts on red wolf taxonomy have concluded, time and time again, that the red wolf represents a unique lineage that is worthy of conservation and should remain a listable entity under the ESA,” stated Maggie Howell, Wolf Conservation Center Executive Director. “No longer plagued by questions of taxonomy, USFWS needs to re-evaluate its recent decisions and management changes and bring its efforts back in line with the conservation mandate of the ESA. Today’s findings give USFWS no excuse to further delay its recommitment to recovering the red wolf within the current five-county Red Wolf Recovery Area in North Carolina.”

The red wolf and Mexican gray wolf are among the most endangered mammals in North America. Both species at one time were extinct in the wild. At last count, an estimated 114 wild Mexican gray wolves remain in the U.S. Only 24 wild red wolves are known to remain.

Red Wolf Background

In June, the USFWS released its proposal for managing the last wild red wolves – a single population in eastern North Carolina consisting of fewer than 30 individuals. The Service proposed to reduce the red wolf recovery area by nearly 90 percent and limit the wild population to just 10 – 15 wolves. The proposal would also eliminate protections for any red wolves that wander off the newly-designated recovery area, effectively allowing anyone to kill red wolves on private lands, for any reason.

Americans Overwhelmingly Support Red Wolf Recovery

When USFWS solicited public comments on its draft proposal, the plan was met with near-unanimous opposition from the American public. Out of 108,124 comments submitted between June 28th and August 28th, 99.9 percent favored the need for strong federal protections for red wolves.

Federal Court Finds USFWS in Violation of Federal Law

Examining USFWS’s decisions to allow private landowners to shoot and kill red wolves, to end captive-to-wild release events, and to end efforts to prevent hybridization with coyotes, on November 5, 2018, a federal court ruled that USFWS violated legal requirements to protect and recover the world’s last wild red wolves. The Judge 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.

USFWS has been silent re red wolf recovery since November 2018. Only 24 wild red wolves are known to remain in the wild.