Science panel determines red wolves are a distinct species, underscoring need for protection

Red Wolf (Photo: USFWS)

Red wolves are indeed a unique species,  according to a National Academy of Sciences report issued yesterday scuttling theories that the animals’ bloodline had been diluted, and that they were no longer worthy of protection in the wild.

The findings are important because the US Fish and Wildlife Service had stopped managing and conserving the only known wild red wolf population — now estimated at less than 25 — in northeastern North Carolina. The agency’s proposed policies — thwarted, at least temporarily, by litigation filed by the Southern Environmental Law Center — would likely cause the species to go extinct in the wild, a violation of the Endangered Species Act.

The US Fish and Wildlife Service could not be reached for comment.

The earliest fossils of red wolves — dated to 10,000 years ago — were found in Florida, part of the animals’ historical range in the southeastern US. But the red wolves had long been extinct when, in 1987, USFWS introduced an “experimental population” into several counties near the coast, including Dare. The experiment was successful and by 2000, an estimated 200 roamed northeastern North Carolina. But after USFWS stopped its conservation program, which coincided with pressure from several area landowners who opposed the release of the wolves, the number of animals plummeted.

The agency had ceased its coyote sterilization program, which would have kept coyotes and red wolves from breeding, thus diluting the wolves’ bloodline. USFWS had also proposed removing most the wolves from the wild and placing them in zoos or sanctuaries. Wolves that left their designated area — narrowed to one part of Dare County — could legally be shot.

A federal judge in North Carolina ruled last year that the agency violated the Endangered Species Act by implementing those measures and by failing to respond to the ongoing decline of the species. There may be only one breeding pair left in the wild.

In March 2018, Congress directed the US Fish and Wildlife Service to investigate the “taxonomic status” — the defining and shared characteristics of both Mexican gray wolves and red wolves. Both are classified as endangered under federal law.

The National Academy of Sciences conducted the research, studying DNA, as well as the length of their hind feet and tail, the width of their head and overall body mass. While the wolves have interbred with other canids, the scientists found that the current population of red wolves is genetically linked to its ancestors and not a subspecies of gray wolf or coyote.

Derb Carter, senior attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center issued a statement on the academy’s findings:

“Today’s report by the National Academies confirms the longstanding classification of red wolves as a distinct species deserving of protection and underscores the urgency for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to act now to save the wild red wolf.  … Time is running out to do what we know is required to save this species.”

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