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Federal judge to USFWS: Release captive red wolves into the wild to head off extinction

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service must develop a plan by March 1 to introduce captive red wolves into the officially designated Red Wolf Recovery Area in North Carolina, a federal court ruled last Friday. The release of captive red wolves, raised in zoos and sanctuaries, is one of the last measures to keep the wild population from going extinct.

The U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina issued an order that temporarily prohibits the agency from implementing its recent policy change barring release of captive wolves into the wild. As few as seven red wolves remain in the wild today.

In his order, U.S. District Court Judge Terence Boyle did not mandate a particular number of wolves to be released or a timeline for the release, only that the agency develop its plan by the deadline.

The Southern Environmental Law Center had sued USFWS on behalf of the Red Wolf Coalition, Defenders of Wildlife and Animal Welfare Institute. The plaintiffs had argued that in failing to release the captive wolves, as it had for decades, the agency was violating the Endangered Species Act.

USFWS released captive wolves into the recovery area every year from 1987 to 2014, according to court documents.

A U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service spokeswoman said the agency declined to comment on the judge’s ruling.

In 2000, there were as many as 200 red wolves living in and around the official recovery area eastern North Carolina, primarily Dare and Hyde counties. Yet as the agency began dismantling the recovery program in 2015, the number of red wolves began to drop precipitously.

That same year USFWS announced that it would stop releasing red wolves from captivity into the wild while it reviewed the continued viability of the Red Wolf Recovery Program. The agency also began allowing private landowners to kill non-problem wolves — also known as a lethal take — and ceased sterilizing coyotes. This is important because coyotes can breed with red wolves, diluting the genetic line, jeopardizing the purity, and thus, the protection of the species.

At the time Judge Boyle ruled that USFWS could not legally authorize lethal takes and had to resume the sterilization program.

In the winter of 2019-20, USFWS did release one red wolf into the Red Wolf Recovery Area, which it transferred from the wild population of six red wolves located in St. Vincent National Wildlife Refuge in Florida, according to the Southern Environmental Law Center.

However, in court documents, SELC alleged that USFWS  have sterilized only eight coyotes in the Red Wolf Recovery area since 2018, and all were sterilized in February 2020. This is in contrast to 75 coyotes that were sterilized in the same area  between January 2012 and March 2014.

In essence, the SELC alleged that USFWS “have essentially ceased all active management practices aimed at supporting the red wolf population in the wild, and the result has led to near extinction of the wild population of red wolves.”

“The Red Wolf Coalition is grateful that the court saw the importance of releasing captive red wolves to the wild population,” said Kim Wheeler, executive director of Red Wolf Coalition. “These additional red wolves will add genetic diversity and breeding opportunities to the wild population in northeastern North Carolina.”

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