Recent news, including a court ruling against the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s (FWS) mismanagement of wild red wolves and a comment counting effort that showed near unanimous support of red wolf recovery, shows the immense red wolf favor that exists in North Carolina’s swampy Albemarle Peninsula.
In partnership with other conservation groups, Wildlands Network is fighting to gain ground with the federal government in their decision to end protection of red wolves who wander from the refuge territory in Dare County, North Carolina.
Red Wolves and a History of Persecution
The history of the red wolf (Canis rufus) is paved with twists and turns. In 1967, the FWS designated the red wolf an endangered species, and then declared it to be extinct in the wild in 1980. In 1986, the FWS established a reintroduction site at Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge in eastern North Carolina in an effort to save the dwindling species. The FWS chose this 1.7-million-acre habitat because of the isolated nature of the peninsula and the absence of coyotes in this territory.
After the release of the first 8 wolves in 1987 at the refuge, the FWS established rules to protect the wolves if they wandered outside the refuge. It was understood by the FWS and the public that effective management was necessary for the wolves to survive. Under this protection, “taking” a wolf was prohibited in the recovery area unless there was proof of harm to a human, pet, or livestock. A permit for a “take” would be granted if a reasonable effort had been made by FWS personnel to first capture the animal and remove it from that piece of private land.
Through effective management techniques, such as pup fostering and coyote sterilization, the FWS was able to actively support the wild red wolf population. In 2007, the red wolf population hit its peak number at 130 wolves in the wild, and the program was declared a “remarkable success.”
Mistaken Identity: Decimating the Wild Red Wolf Population
Shortly thereafter, coyotes (Canis latrans) began making their way into eastern North Carolina, causing problems for the population of wild red wolves. In July 2013, the North Carolina Wildlife Resource Commission (NCWRC) opened 24-hour coyote hunting on private lands in the red wolf recovery area. The red wolf population experienced tragic losses in the number of wolves in the wild due to the nighttime hunting policy for coyotes. Hunters continually mistook wolves for coyotes and vice versa.
The nighttime coyote hunting allowance lasted less than a year, but it was enough time to do serious damage to the wild population of red wolves. What’s more, vehicle strikes, disease, and interbreeding with coyotes continuously threatened the wild population.
In January 2015, the NCWRC requested the FWS declare the red wolf extinct in the wild and terminate the recovery program altogether. During the same winter, the FWS halted coyote sterilization and pup fostering programs that previously supported the wild population of wolves. The red wolf program took an extremely negative turn due to poor management practices and political pressure from a few wealthy landowners.
Counting Comments: Near Unanimous Support for Red Wolves
By April 2018, there were fewer than 30 wolves left in the 5-county area. In June, the FWS released 4 alternatives for potentially moving forward with the recovery program. Of the 4 alternatives, only 1 of them would result in a future for the remaining wild wolves. The other alternatives presented by FWS would drastically reduce the recovery area by 90 percent and require the FWS to expend less effort to recover the species.
Of the total comments submitted, 107,988 comments were in support of the red wolf recovery program (99.9 percent).
The FWS gave the public the opportunity to comment on the proposal in July and then again in August. Wildlands Network, along with several other environmental groups, combined efforts to count the 108,124 comments submitted during both comment periods.
Of the total comments submitted, 107,988 comments were in support of the red wolf recovery program (99.9 percent). Out of the 2,923 comments submitted by North Carolina residents, 2,898 comments were in favor of the wolves (99.1 percent). From the 5-county area, 95 comments were submitted. Of the 95 comments submitted from the recovery area, 75 comments were in favor of the wolves (78.9 percent).
It’s clear that despite the FWS’s efforts to stunt red wolf recovery efforts, the public overwhelmingly favors protecting this iconic American species in the wild.
Court Hearing and Decision: A Victory for Red Wolves
Just last month, a court hearing was held in Raleigh, NC about the red wolf recovery program after the Red Wolf Coalition, Defenders of Wildlife, and the Animal Welfare Institute charged the FWS with mismanagement of the wild population of wolves at Alligator River. The groups alleged the FWS failed to provide scientific evidence behind their proposed decision to shrink the recovery area by 90 percent. In addition, the FWS issued 2 take permits that did not meet the criteria set by the original management plan. Finally, the agency has also failed to manage wolves in a way that promotes the conservation of the species.
In his Nov. 5 ruling on the lawsuit, U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina Chief Judge Terrence W. Boyle determined that the FWS failed to meet the standards set by the Endangered Species Act and the National Environmental Policy Act. The court ordered that a preliminary injunction against the unauthorized take of red wolves should be made permanent.
“The population decrease coincides with defendants’ making internal revisions to its guidelines and management policies, in response at least in part to mounting public pressure against red wolf recovery efforts, and defendants have failed to proffer any other evidence which could be deemed responsible for such change.”
But the Fight Isn’t Over
This victory in the courtroom is not the end of the battle for the red wolf. Based on what we’ve seen from the program’s history, we know the red wolf can have a future as a thriving species, but it is going to take work to make that a reality.
For the red wolf to thrive in its original habitat, we need to gain support from landowners surrounding the refuges in eastern North Carolina. Without the support of these landowners, the red wolf population is limited to 10-15 individuals in the recovery area due to habitat constraints. Outreach that focuses on tolerance and coexistence with large canids like red wolves must become a priority for government groups and NGOs alike.
Please act for the red wolves and voice your opinion to your local government today. You can also contact your federal legislators and ask them to insist the FWS uphold their duty to protect red wolves in the wild.