Red wolves can’t be arbitrarily killed, federal judge rules in key decision against US Fish and Wildlife

Photo of an endangered red wolf in its natural habitat of coastal North Carolina

Photo: Wildlands Network

A federal district court judge has forbidden the US Fish and Wildlife Service from allowing private landowners to kill nonthreatening red wolves, ruling that the agency has violated several sections of the Endangered Species Act.

Chief US District Court Judge Terence Boyle ruled late yesterday that the USFWS can no longer grant “take permits” except under extremely narrow circumstances: if the animals pose an imminent threat to people, pets and livestock. Boyle had granted a preliminary injunction on this practice in 2016; today’s ruling makes it permanent. With fewer than 35 remaining, red wolves are nearly extinct in the wild.

Defenders of Wildlife and the Animal Welfare Institute had sued USFWS. The Southern Environmental Law Center represented the groups.

Boyle also determined that USFWS had violated the National Environmental Policy Act by failing to conduct an environmental assessment or impact statement about the effects of the agency’s new and controversial rules to manage the red wolf population. The judge’s decision will likely delay their implementation, scheduled for as early as Nov. 30.

Those rules include the transfer of most red wolves to zoos and nature centers. The agency would corral the remaining wolves — about a dozen — onto a federal bombing range and a nature preserve in Dare County, sharply reducing their habitat. Until today’s court decision, USFWS had proposed that if the wolves strayed from that property, they could be legally shot. Conservation biologists have publicly stated that under current and proposed management practices, the species would go extinct within six years.

USFWS argued in a court hearing last month that the case was moot because the new rules were pending. Boyle disagreed, but in a small win for the agency, he did not require USFWS to conduct another five-year review of the species because one was recently completed.

The law doesn't allow the agency to just walk away from species conservation Click To Tweet

The USFWS could not be reached for comment.

Johanna Hamburger, wildlife attorney for the Animal Welfare Institute, applauded Boyle’s decision. “The USFWS has a duty under the Endangered Species Act to implement proactive conservation measures to achieve species recovery.”

Jason Rylander, staff attorney for Defenders of Wildlife, said the decision “offers a glimmer of hope for species recovery and new energy to make this program successful once again.”

In 1987, USFWS introduced a breeding pair of the rare wolves into eastern North Carolina and designated five coastal counties as their habitat. After the population peaked at more than 100 wolves in 2000 — an achievement the agency heralded as a successful reintroduction of the species into the wild.

Since then, the population has plummeted. Many of the wolves were shot legally and illegally. Meanwhile, a few disgruntled landowners swayed state and federal wildlife officials to stop managing the wolves, which made the animals vulnerable to extinction.

In his 19-page decision, Boyle criticized USFWS, agreeing with the plaintiffs that the agency’s actions were “arbitrary and capricious.” Nor are the wolves as unpopular as opponents have claimed. In September 2014, USFWS said it received 228 letters requesting that red wolves be removed from private land, and by October of that year, it had received 405 individual requests to do so.

The agency used this correspondence in part to justify issuing take permits and essentially giving up on the wolves. It stopped releasing the animals into the wild and halted a coyote sterilization program designed to prevent interbreeding.

Later, though, according to court documents, USFWS personnel determined that many of those who had signed letters thought they were signing a coyote hunting petition, “while others stated that that they did not have red wolves on their property, or that they did not object to having red wolves on their property; other requests for removal contained no contact information or were duplicate requests from the same address.”

Other landowners refused to allow the agency onto the property, even though they wanted a “take permit” to kill wolves — wolves that may not have even strolled across private property. “A landowner’s refusal to grant USFWS access to their property cannot serve as a proper basis for issuing a lethal take authorization,” Boyle wrote, “as doing so would impermissibly tip the scales in favor of public demand and away from USFWS’s congressionally mandated goal to recover and rehabilitate the red wolf in the wild.”

Sierra Weaver, senior attorney for the SELC, said the USFWS has spent four years “dismantling one of the most successful predator reintroductions in US history. The service knows how to protect and recover the red wolf in the wild, but it stopped listening to its scientists and started listening to bureaucrats instead. The law doesn’t allow the agency to just walk away from species conservation, like it did here.”

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