Activists Sue Obama Administration to Save the Nation’s Rarest Wolves

Conservation groups take wildlife officials to court for failing to protect North Carolina’s endangered red wolf.
Red wolf. (Photo: B. Bartel/USFWS)
Nov 13, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Taylor Hill is an associate editor at TakePart covering environment and wildlife.

The red wolf isn’t the poster child of North American wolves—that part goes to its bigger, more outgoing cousin, the gray wolf.

But it may be the most important, because in the 1980s, long before gray wolves returned to Yellowstone, the red wolf was the first-ever top predator to be reintroduced into the wild.

Now conservationists charge that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which manages the program meant to save the species from extinction, has abandoned its red wolf recovery program. A coalition of wildlife advocates has sued, stating that in allowing landowners to kill red wolves, the agency has jeopardized the existence of the remaining 50 to 75 wolves left in the wild.

Red Wolf Coalition, Defenders of Wildlife, and the Animal Welfare Institute filed the lawsuit Thursday in the U.S. District Court, Eastern District of North Carolina.

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The suit alleges that in June the agency illegally permitted a landowner with property within the wolf’s critical habitat to shoot a breeding female wolf when it could have taken other steps to save the animal.

“When it’s such a small population, the death of one female breeding wolf can have a massive ripple effect throughout the population,” said Tara Zuardo, wildlife attorney at Animal Welfare Institute.

It was once abundant throughout the eastern and south-central U.S., but the species’ population has been decimated by years of systematic predator trapping and hunting programs. By 1980, the few remaining wild red wolves had been captured for a last-chance captive breeding program.

Seven years later, the first captive-bred red wolves were released back into the wild, the foundation of what the FWS has labeled an “experimental population” of 50 to 100 animals, kept within a five-county region of North Carolina.

But that experimental designation means the agency can permit landowners in the area to shoot wolves on their property once all other measures, including recapture and relocation, have failed to remove the animals.

According to an agency press release, the landowner had contacted officials about red wolves on his property but refused to allow them access to remove them. The landowner instead hired his own trapper, who captured and removed one animal but killed another. The agency ultimately sanctioned a “lethal take” of the breeding female, which was known to have successfully raised 16 pups across four litters.

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“If he wasn’t going to allow Fish and Wildlife Service on his land, then Fish and Wildlife Service shouldn’t have issued him a permit,” Zuardo said. “Allowing a landowner to do that was the type of decision that’s been frustrating red wolf advocates for years.”

The lawsuit also challenges a recent FWS decision to suspend its wolf-fostering program—which improved the red wolf’s genetic health by giving captive-bred pups to wild red wolf females to raise in the wild.

The agency has also suspended its coyote sterilization efforts in red wolf habitat, increasing the potential for wolf-coyote crossbreeding that will further endanger the species’ survival.

Both moves, Zuardo said, are violations of the Endangered Species Act.

Leo Miranda, assistant regional director at FWS’ Southeast regional office, said the agency was aware of the lawsuit, but he declined to comment on it. FWS is reviewing its red wolf species survival plan, Miranda said, and has created a new recovery team made up of wolf researchers, wildlife officials, and landowners “working to address the conservation of this species on the landscape.”

The revised red wolf recovery plan is scheduled to be in place by 2016.