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Judge stops plan to end red wolf protections, USFWS extends review of recovery program

Red Wolf in captivity at Charles Towne Landing (File, WCIV)

A federal judge has stopped a plan to relax endangered species protections for the red wolf in eastern North Carolina.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced Thursday, Nov. 29, it will continue to review its red wolf recovery program following a judge's ruling earlier in November.

The USFWS proposed in June abandoning current efforts to foster a wild red wolf population in eastern North Carolina, claiming the population had dwindled to as few as 35-40 animals because of deaths caused by humans and poor wild breeding results.

The proposal would've allowed the public to legally kill red wolves found outside of federal wildlife preserves, which the agency considers non-essential to its recovery program.

A conservation group known as the Red Wolf Coalition sued the USFWS to stop the proposal, claiming the agency was violating its own policies and the Endangered Species Act by ending protections for the animals.

U.S. District Judge Terrence Boyle agreed, saying in his ruling Nov. 4 the USFWS had been violating its very mandate to recover the red wolf in the wild.

Boyle noted the USFWS in 2014 began disregarding previously successful management practices and changing internal management policies "in response at least in part to mounting public pressure against red wolf recovery efforts."

The USFWS scaling back its efforts included issuing kill permits to landowners for red wolves without exhausting all other means of removal or even verifying if red wolves were present on the landowners property.

Boyle did acknowledge growing difficulties for the USFWS and the recovery program, but said there was no evidence the difficulties couldn't have been overcome had the USFWS continued using practices proven successful in prior years to positively manage the population.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service submitted its proposed changes to the red wolf recovery program in June, citing fear a viable wild red wolf population in eastern North Carolina no longer would be possible for many reasons.

The proposal called for reducing federal management of the wolves on public and private lands across a five-county area in eastern North Carolina, scaling back red wolf protection areas to the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge and Dare County Bombing Range.

Management of wild wolves outside those federal lands would've ended, and federal endangered species protections on wolves off refuge lands would've been lifted.

Without those protections, people could've legally killed red wolves on their property without permits from the USFWS, and without a second look from law enforcement.

The USFWS reasoned refocusing management efforts on red wolves currently on refuge lands would allow it to better maintain those animals as breeding stock, thus strengthening the odds of success for future reintroduction attempts elsewhere.

"This has been a very long program, and it hasn’t really worked out the way we wanted it to," said Phil Kloer, spokesman for the USFWS in the southeast. "We thought we had a shot with this population in North Carolina, but between gunshots, automobile strikes and hybridization, it has just kept getting tougher and tougher."

Considered extinct in the wild by the late 20th century, tests of reintroducing captive red wolves into the wild began in 1976 in South Carolina on Bulls Island in the Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge north of Charleston.

Cape Romain eventually became home to a captive breeding program which still exists, but conservationists in 1987 did successfully establish a wild red wolf population on the Albermarle Peninsula in North Carolina.

North Carolina's wild red wolves eventually grew in number to around 130 in 2006, spreading across five counties in eastern North Carolina. However, the population has suffered steady decline in recent years, and is down to 35-45 known animals, according to the USFWS.

The decline is one of the driving forces behind the decision for the USFWS to rethink its conservation strategy, and propose new strategies, according to Kloer.

In an April 2018 report, the USFWS outlined several threats to the long-term viability of red wolves in North Carolina, forecasting the wild population could die off within 8 years.

The USFWS says the two greatest threats to red wolves are death by humans and unsuccessful wild breeding, both occurring at rates unlikely to result in the species' continued existence without significant human intervention.

Humans have been the leading cause of death for red wolves since their reintroduction to the wild. USFWS officials say 219 of 285 wolves that died between 1987 and 2013 were killed by humans. Most were shot or hit by vehicles. Others died by illegal poisoning and trapping.

Meanwhile, Failed wild breeding among red wolves has been exacerbated by cross-breeding with their more prevalent, more adaptable cousins, coyotes. Hybridization with coyotes is diluting the wild red wolf gene pool, researchers say.

Habitat loss is another major risk factor for the long-term viability of the wolves, officials say.

While wild red wolf numbers are believed to have dipped below 50, the USFWS says the species is not currently in danger of extinction. More than 200 red wolves are kept in captivity around the country.

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