Fish and Wildlife Service turns its back on red wolf recovery

Stunned: that is the best word to describe how I felt when I heard the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) announce its decision on the fate of the Red Wolf Recovery Program. This agency, charged with being the chief steward of our nation's wildlife, announced its intent to remove almost all of the remaining red wolves from the wild. Ironically, it framed the decision as a positive outcome, assured us that the FWS is committed to the red wolf's future. Unfortunately, those words rang hollow. Giving up on the wild population while making vague promises to evaluate new recovery sites elsewhere, sometime in the future, isn't commitment. It's the farthest thing from it.

Commitment to red wolf recovery means releasing captive-bred red wolves into the wild. It means managing coyotes in the recovery area to prevent hybridization. It means standing up for red wolves when landowners want them pulled off their property without just cause. The FWS used to do all of this, back when it took recovery more seriously. But if this announcement is any indication, the agency hasn't taken the plight of the wild red wolf seriously in several years.

According to the FWS's game plan, red wolves will face at least another year of neglect and mismanagement before the agency takes any action at all. As red wolves continue to decline, the FWS will busy themselves with a Species Status Assessment, five-year status review, and evaluation of new red wolf release sites in the Southeast. The agency already spent the last two years assessing the recovery program and gathering the latest scientific information, while the red wolf population continued to decline the entire time.

If FWS would actually listen to North Carolinians instead of a couple of well-known wolf-hating landowners, they would know that there is significant support for red wolves in the state. Last month, 27 North Carolina legislators sent a letter to Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell urging her to prevent FWS from giving up on red wolves. Most telling, in a recent poll conducted by Tulchin Research, 81 percent of North Carolinians said the FWS should do everything possible to protect the wolf and prevent its extinction.

The red wolf nearly disappeared when FWS stepped in, bred them in captivity and reintroduced them within their historic range in eastern North Carolina in1987. From only fourteen wolves, the population grew to nearly 150 and the Red Wolf Recovery Program was hailed as a model for wolf reintroduction elsewhere. It is now in shambles.

Over the past few years, FWS has stopped releasing captive-bred red wolves, halted coyote management in the recovery area and suspended advocating for red wolves in any way. These days, the agency captures and removes red wolves from private lands at landowner request, even if the wolves aren't causing trouble. Red wolves face being shot by coyote hunters, hostile landowners and aggressive anti-wolf proposals from the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission. Yet the greatest blow to their survival has come from the agency tasked with their protection.

Where will captured red wolves go if FWS implements its proposal? To zoos, where they will become part of the captive breeding effort. What will become of the remaining red wolves confined on Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge or the nearby bombing range? The prognosis is grim. A recent population viability analysis found that a federal lands-only approach is likely to cause extinction within fourteen years.

So what's next for this tiny handful of 45 wolves in eastern North Carolina, the only wild red wolves left? Defenders of Wildlife and our conservation allies are doing everything possible to keep red wolves in the wild and get FWS to do right by them. We've asked the courts to intervene on behalf of red wolves and stop the removal of wolves from the wild that are not causing harm or threat.

The status quo isn't working. Vague promises of future action aren't good enough. The red wolf's struggle isn't just a tragedy for the wolves. It's a tragedy for the fight to save endangered species as a whole and for our nation's commitment to be responsible stewards of our wildlife. Defenders of Wildlife is determined to get this recovery effort back on track, and we're fighting for the day when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service finally, truly shares our goal.