By Kathleen Sullivan, selcnc.org & Amey Owen, awionline.org
Conservation groups filed a complaint in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina against the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) for its failure to protect the world’s only wild population of red wolves and illegal actions including authorizing the killing of a breeding female red wolf in a population of only 50-75 red wolves in the wild. The conservation groups involved in the litigation are the Red Wolf Coalition, Defenders of Wildlife, and the Animal Welfare Institute (AWI) represented by the Southern Environmental Law Center.
“Today we’ve gone to court to protect the world’s only wild population of red wolves that are now in critical condition with only about 50 to 75 red wolves remaining in the wild,” said Sierra Weaver, senior attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center who represents the conservation groups in today’s court filing. “The wild survival of America’s rarest wolf depends on whether the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service acts responsibly and fulfills its legal duty.”
According to the service’s own estimates, the world’s only wild population of red wolves has declined by as much as half of what it was only a year ago when an estimated 100 red wolves lived within the five county red wolf recovery area in NC.
“The red wolf is in grave danger of extinction, and if the US Fish and Wildlife Service doesn’t step up and significantly modify its management approach for red wolves, we may never see this species in the wild again,” said Jason Rylander, senior attorney for Defenders of Wildlife. “This species can’t afford to wait another minute.
The US Fish and Wildlife Service needs to take serious action and work with state and local governments to ensure the red wolf doesn’t slip away.”
Following the USFWS announcement in June 2015 that it had authorized the killing of a breeding female and suspended red wolf reintroductions into the wild, the complaint filed details the agency’s failure to investigate the recent decline of the wild wolves’ population, its actions and management that harm the survival of red wolves, and its failure to investigate how best to recover wild red wolves as required by law. Since 2007, the Service has not conducted the five-year status review required by the Endangered Species Act to inform recovery and management efforts.
“The red wolf was the top predator of the Southeast before human persecution and habitat destruction nearly wiped it out forever,” said Red Wolf Coalition executive director Kim Wheeler. “Any critically endangered animal that has been a keystone species in an ecosystem for thousands of years, and that is part of our recorded past, deserves every effort required to protect and restore it. We owe that to the red wolf – and to ourselves.”
When the USFWS illegally authorized the killing of a critically endangered female red wolf within the Red Wolf Recovery Area in eastern North Carolina, tracking data showed the collared female red wolf was exhibiting denning behavior. The loss of any breeding adult red wolf is a significant setback to recovery of this critically endangered species.
“Through its active pursuit of activities that threaten the recovery of red wolves and clear neglect of those that remain, the Service is evidently trying to drive the Red Wolf Recovery program into the ground, despite wide public support,” said Tara Zuardo, wildlife attorney at AWI. “There are ample opportunities to work with local landowners, scientists, and the public in funding and supporting red wolf recovery in the wolves’ already-established home of North Carolina.”
North Carolina is home to the only wild population of red wolves in the world. Red wolves bred in captivity were reintroduced on a North Carolina peninsula within their native range in the late 1980’s after red wolves were declared extinct in the wild. Once common throughout the Southeast, intensive predator control programs and loss of habitat decimated wild red wolf populations.