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Fewer than 30 Red Wolves Remain, What Happens Now

Last spring, the Wolf Conservation Center (WCC) celebrated the birth of ten critically endangered red wolf pups. Every one of them adorable, and all valuable contributions to the recovery of their rare and at-risk species. But they were born into a world that currently has only one place for them in the wild – North Carolina – and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) seeks to take that place away.

Recipe for Extinction

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

Endangered species recovery is a matter of pride and concern for all U.S. citizens. 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.

Only 19 comments explicitly supported the agency’s plan to eliminate red wolf protections and shrink the recovery area. Thirty additional comments – with 13 of these coming from a single real estate developer – expressed general opposition to red wolf recovery.

Red Wolf Victory

With the opportunity to comment closed and USFWS’s decision poised to be finalized by November 30, the future for red wolves remained on shaky ground. Without a renewed federal commitment to save the last wild red wolves, one of the few apex predators to roam the U.S. Southeast would be relegated to the history books.

Enter Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC), a non-profit law firm representing a coalition of conservation groups who initiated a lawsuit against USFWS in 2015 for authorizing the capturing and killing of non-problem red wolves, and abandoning conservation measures that had been used for decades. In an October court hearing, SELC asked the federal judge to intervene as USFWS’s imminent plan would hasten the animal’s extinction and be a further 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, the court ruled on November 5 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 Announces Delay Decision

On November 29, just three weeks after a federal judge ruled that USFWS has a duty under the Endangered Species Act to implement proactive conservation measures to achieve species recovery, USFWS announced its decision to delay any action re its proposed rule change.

“In light of a federal court ruling issued earlier this month in the Eastern District of North Carolina, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is extending its review of a proposed rule to adapt its management of red wolves in the state. The additional review time will provide the Service the opportunity to fully evaluate the implications of the court decision.”

Scientific Report Finds Red Wolf as Taxonomically Valid

Wolf taxonomy, a messy topic for sure, has been the subject of a lengthy, scientific debate; and opponents of red wolf recovery have suggested that red wolves are undeserving of federal protection given the dispute over genetics.

Fortunately, some clarity emerged in late March after the National Academy of Sciences confirmed in an independent analysis for USFWS that red wolves are indeed a valid species.

No longer plagued by questions of taxonomy, no excuses remain for USFWS. The agency needs to re-evaluate its recent decisions and management changes and bring its efforts back in line with the conservation mandate of the ESA.

What’s Next?

We don’t know. In an email, a spokesman for the Fish & Wildlife Service said he is “not able to comment on any possible upcoming changes” in the Red Wolf Recovery Program. So now, while we wait for USFWS to make the next move, this is what we do know:

1. Americans overwhelmingly support red wolf recovery.

2. The federal court ruling makes clear that the USFWS must bring its efforts back in line with the conservation mandate of the ESA.

3. The red wolf is distinct taxonomically valid and worthy of ESA protection.

4. Only 24 wild red wolves are known to remain.

Stay tuned.