US Fish and Wildlife reaches settlement with animal welfare groups over protection of endangered red wolf

By: - August 10, 2023 6:00 am
A red wolf stares directly into the camera. It has erect ears, has a long snout, black nose, and its fur is brown, red, white and gray. Photo by US Fish and Wildlife Service

An endangered red wolf (Photo: USFWS)

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has reached a settlement agreement with three animal welfare organizations that requires the agency to diligently work to ensure the survival of the endangered red wolf.

The plaintiffs were the Red Wolf Coalition, based in Tyrrell County, Defenders of Wildlife, and the Animal Welfare Institute. They were represented by the Southern Environmental Law Center.

Under the terms of the agreement, USFWS “commits to manage the Eastern North Carolina red wolf population in a manner consistent with the Endangered Species Act.” This includes continuing its coyote sterilization program, key to the species’ uniqueness. In addition, when coyotes breed with red wolves it dilutes the genetic line, jeopardizing the purity, and thus, the protection of the species.

USFWS will also continue to work with sanctuaries and zoos to ensure there are enough captive red wolves to breed and then release into the wild.

For the next eight years the USFWS will develop and publish annual red wolf release plans to help solidify the survival of the species. The report will be due no later than Dec. 1 of each year and be accompanied by a public briefing.

Eastern North Carolina is part of the red wolves’ historic range.

Although the species had officially gone extinct in 1980, USFWS helped it rebound, releasing the first breeding pairs of red wolves into the wilds of northeastern North Carolina in 1987. By 1992, the agency had declared the experiment a success. 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 — the animals’ historic range.

Yet the agency began dismantling the recovery program in 2015, and the number of red wolves began to drop precipitously. In 2020, there were just seven wild red wolves.

A few powerful landowners in the area had complained to state and federal officials that wolves were straying from their official boundaries onto their property. 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.

Earlier this week USFWS announced a red wolf had been illegally shot and killed in Washington County along a fence line located south of Newland Road on May 18. The USFWS is offering a $5,000 rewardnfor information that leads to successful prosecution in this case. Anyone with information on the death of the red wolf is urged to contact North Carolina Division of Refuge Law Enforcement Patrol Captain Frank Simms at 252-216-7504 or Special Agent Matthew Brink at 919-856-4786 ext. 37.

In June, the oldest known red wolf died of natural causes at the Milltail area near the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge. She was 14.

Red wolves, a timeline

Red wolves are indigenous to the southern and southeastern United States. However by 1962, they were nearly extinct.

1967: The red wolf was listed as an endangered species.

1969: A captive breeding center acquires its first red wolf in hopes of reestablishing the species.

1973: The Endangered Species Act becomes law, which outlines the rights of private property owners while protecting the wolves and other animals, fish, amphibians and birds.

1980: The red wolf is declared extinct in the wild.

1984: The Red Wolf Recovery Plan is revised and approved.

1987: Four pairs of captive-born wolves are released into the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge. A first litter of pups is born a year later.

1989: A second set of captive-born wolves are released in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. That program is later discontinued because the pups were not surviving.

2002: The entire North Carolina red wolf population is wild-born except for two pups born at the N.C. Zoo. They were later fostered by wild wolves.

2013: Southern Environmental Law Center successfully files suit against the state wildlife commission to curb night hunting of coyotes, because people mistakenly — or intentionally — shoot the wolves. From 1987 to 2000, 15 red wolves died from gunshot wounds, an average of 1.2 per year. But from 2000 to 2013, the total spiked to 73, an average of 5 per year — a 300% increase.

2015: USFWS authorizes “take permits,” expanding the rights of private landowners to kill wolves. SELC sues, based on provisions of the Endangered Species Act.

2018: Federal report concludes red wolves in eastern North Carolina could become extinct in eight years.

2020: Animal welfare groups file a motion in federal court to require USFWS to continue to release captive red wolves into the wild to help maintain the species. the future of the red wolf recovery program.

2021-2022: Under court order, USFWS issues three phases of a red wolf release plan. Eight wolves are released into the wild. After a red wolf is illegally killed in Tyrrell County, the number of wolves in the wild is 14.

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Lisa Sorg
Lisa Sorg

Assistant Editor and Environmental Reporter Lisa Sorg helps manage newsroom operations while covering the environment, climate change, agriculture and energy.