Environment

Scientists call out US Fish and Wildlife Service over “alarming misinterpretations” about red wolves’ survival

Red wolf

(Photo: Wolf Haven International)

This post has been updated with comments from Jett Ferebee, who opposes the Red Wolf Recovery program.

Red wolves kept in captivity are not in danger of extinction — not now, not in 10 years, not even in 125. The US Fish and Wildlife Service is using “alarming misinterpretations” of data to determine the future of the Red Wolf Recovery Program, according to scientists hired by the agency in a sharply worded letter yesterday.

At a Sept. 12 press conference, USFWS Regional Director Cynthia Dohner said that “with no changes to current management, the species will likely be lost within the next decade.” Based on this conclusion, Dohner justified moving most of the endangered wild red wolves from eastern North Carolina to zoos and wildlife parks to boost the captive population.

“This is a better path for the red wolf,” Dohner said at the time. “It’s not sustainable here.”

USFWS had hired the scientists to conduct a “population viability analysis.” The point of the study was to determine how  red wolves would likely fare both in captivity and in the wild.

The red wolf was declared endangered in 1967. There are about 225 red wolves residing in zoos. Another 30 to 40 live in five counties in northeastern North Carolina, where USFWS re-introduced them on federal lands in the 1980s in hopes of rebuilding the wild population. At its peak in the early 2000s, there were more than 125 wolves in the wild. But since then, people have shot them — sometimes mistaking them for coyotes, but in other cases, intentionally.

According to the analysis, captive red wolves won’t become extinct, as USFWS had stated. Nor do zoos “need red wolves from North Carolina” to keep their numbers up. Zoos could even release some of the animals into the wild without harming the captive population, the letter said. And Dohner’s statement that “it is clear that more animals are needed in captivity to support any wild population” has no scientific basis, at least in the population viability study.

The scientists’ letter asks USFWS to append and edit its statement.

A few private landowners in northeastern North Carolina oppose the Red Wolf Recovery Program. They view it as a government intrusion and an imposition on private property rights when the wolves roam onto their land. Jett Ferebee, one of the leading opponents, owns land that he rents to hunters, which compete with the wolves for prey. (Ferebee told NCPW that he does not rent his land to hunters, but that his family and friends hunt on it.)

Ferebee, a real estate developer, had requested — and received — a “take permit,” from USFWS, which allowed him to kill red wolves even if they posed no immediate threat to him or his property. He didn’t want the wolves on his property, he said, but “I’m trying to make USFWS adhere to the rules when they came into the state [and reintroduced the wolves].”

Ferebee said he trapped and returned 10 wolves to USFWS. “I could have shot every one of them,” he said. “But I didn’t want to kill the wolves.”

Last month, a federal judge ordered USFWS to stop issuing the take permits. The Southern Environmental Law Center, representing several wildlife groups, had sued USFWS, alleging it was failing to protect the red wolf as required under the Endangered Species Act.

The USFWS’s recent recommendation on the Red Wolf Recovery Program must go through a public comment period and rulemaking. That process could take more than a year.

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