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Complaint: US Fish and Wildlife Service illegally allowing red wolves to go extinct — again

Six red wolf pups were born at the Museum of Life and Science in Durham in April 2017. Four survived. Earlier this year, eight wolves were moved from the museum to a half-acre habitat at a Virginia Zoo. A federal red wolf recovery plan directs wildlife officials to release wolves raised in captivity into the wild. However, the US Fish and Wildlife Service has failed to do so since 2014. (Photo: Museum of Life and Science)

Just seven wild red wolves are still alive in the world, all of them in eastern North Carolina, the result of federal wildlife officials’ flouting a court order, according to a legal complaint filed by the Southern Environmental Law Center yesterday.

The complaint alleges that despite a 2018 court order to protect the species, the US Fish and Wildlife Service has violated the Endangered Species Act by failing to introduce previously captive red wolves from zoos and nature centers into the Alligator and Pocosin wildlife refuges, which are designated as an official recovery area.

Nor has USFWS continued its coyote sterilization program in the recovery area. That program is important because it keeps coyotes and red wolves from breeding, thus diluting the wolves’ bloodline. Hunters can mistake coyotes for wolves, further reducing the number.

Both coyote sterilization and the release of formerly captive wolves are required as part of the USFWS  Red Wolf Adaptive Management Work Plan.

No previously captive wolves have been released into the recovery area since 2014. Only eight coyotes have been sterilized in the recovery area since 2018 — all of them last February. By contrast, 75 coyotes were sterilized in the recovery area from 2012 to 2014, according to the complaint.

“Faced with a wild population of only seven known animals, the Fish and Wildlife Service is now claiming—without basis—that it’s not allowed to take proven, necessary measures to save the wild red wolves,” said Sierra Weaver, senior attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center. “The service urgently needs to restart red wolf releases from captivity, which it did regularly for 27 years.  Otherwise we’re going to lose the world’s only wild population of this wolf.”

USFWS did not respond to an email seeking comment on the complaint. (Update: USFWS provided a statement on Nov. 18. “The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is committed to the recovery of the red wolf. We are engaged in recovery efforts and continuing to do so, including updating the Red Wolf Recovery Plan and increasing the captive population to ensure the genetic health of the species and support future reintroductions. The Service is also focusing on the management of the nonessential experimental population (NEP) in North Carolina.”

A “nonessential” designation means that, on the basis of the best available information, the experimental population, such as the red wolf, is not essential for the continued existence of the species, according to the agency.

However, it has argued in court filings that new federal rules prohibit the agency from releasing captive red wolves into the wild. However, USFWS has not presented evidence to back up the claim. And even if the claim is true, USFWS must implement comparable conservation measures to conserve the species, according to the Endangered Species Act.

Since 1967, when USFWS listed the red wolf was listed as endangered, the ever-changing fate of the wolves has often been ensnared in federal rules, landowner disputes and court proceedings. The wolf already has already been declared extinct in the wild once, in 1980. Four years later, federal officials approved a recovery plan and breeding program, which they later touted as a success. By 2000, there were 200 known red wolves — tracked by special collars — in eastern North Carolina, the only place they are found in the world.

But over time, USFWS and the NC Wildlife Commission caved to pressure by area landowners who opposed the recovery program, alleging the wolves roamed outside their boundaries. Officials allowed the wolves who left their designated area to be legally shot, a policy later overturned by a federal judge.

Because of ongoing lax enforcement to protect the species and what a federal judge in 2018 called “arbitrary and capricious decisions” by USFWS, the wolves are again on the brink of extinction.

No litters of red wolves were born in the wild in North Carolina in the last two years, the first time this has happened since 1998.

The SELC is representing the Red Wolf Coalition, Defenders of Wildlife and the Animal Welfare Institute in the action.

The complaint, filed in US District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina.

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