Under pressure, the US Fish and Wildlife Service is updating its controversial red wolf recovery plan but scientists and environmental groups are concerned that the Trump administration could doom the red wolf to extinction.
There are only 30 to 45 endangered red wolves living in the wild in five counties in northeastern North Carolina, down from a peak of 150 in 2005. The decrease has been attributed in part to the number of wolves being shot, either accidentally, when they are mistaken for coyotes, or intentionally. Most recently, in late December 2016, a red wolf was illegally shot and killed in the Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge, which is federal property. USFWS and private groups are offering a $16,500 reward for information leading to an arrest.
The recovery plan for red wolves has not been updated since 1990. Last September, USFWS released a memo proposing a policy shift that was condemned by scientists and environmental groups in part because it called for the relocation of most of he wild red wolves to zoos. USFWS justified the proposal by alleging the captive red wolf population was unsustainable. Zookeepers and wildlife biologists sharply disagreed and issued a public statement pointing out USFWS’s failure to accurately interpret the science.
In December, scientists and activists petitioned USFWS and Interior Secretary Sally Jewell to revise the plan to better incorporate the science behind red wolf habitats and recovery.
In a letter dated Jan. 19, USFWS Southeast Regional Director Cynthia Dohner wrote to the Center for Biological Diversity, one of the petitioners, that it would revise the plan by 2018. Meanwhile, the agency will develop a Species Status Assessment by October 2017 , which will be used as the basis for a revised recovery plan. “We will develop the SSA using the best available scientific and commercial information,” Dohner wrote, “and we will also consider the information you submitted with your petition.”
“We hope the plan will be based on that science as a roadmap to recovery,” said Collette Adkins, senior attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity.
However, the red wolf may not survive the Trump administration. Red wolves are among the more than 1,300 animals and plants protected under the Endangered Species Act, which itself is endangered. U.S. Rep. Ryan Zinke, a Montana Republican, is President Trump’s nominee for Interior Secretary. That position oversees USFWS, millions of acres of public lands and the administration of the Endangered Species Act.
In Congress, Zinke voted against federal protections for Mexican wolves and lynx. In 2012, Zinke ran for lieutenant governor of Montana. A Christmas card sent out by Zinke and gubernatorial candidate Neil Livingstone, featured an illustration of the candidates, a dead Mexican wolf and Zinke carrying an assault rifle.
Congressional Republicans, led by Utah Rep. Rob Bishop, also want to repeal the act, established in 1973. Bishop has called the act “dysfunctional” because it interferes with economic development. The timber and development industries often clash with the act because they can’t log or build on lands with endangered species habitats, at least not easily.
“The Endangered Species Act is under attack,” Adkins said. “We’re concerned how it could be undermined under a Trump administration.”