Time Running Out to Save Wild Red Wolves as National Academies of Sciences Confirms Species Status


In response to a request from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine appointed an ad hoc committee to conduct an independent analysis of scientific literature regarding the taxonomy of the endangered red wolf. The red wolf has been recognized as a distinct species warranting conservation since 1967, but language slipped into a 2018 federal appropriations bill called for the service to commission a report about the red wolf’s taxonomic classification.

In response to yesterday’s release of the report confirming the classification of red wolves as a species by the National Academy of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, the Southern Environmental Law Center released the following statement by Derb Carter, senior attorney and director of its North Carolina offices:

“The report by the National Academies confirms the longstanding classification of red wolves as a distinct species deserving of protection, and underscores the urgency for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to act now to save the wild red wolf. A federal court found in November that the agency violated the Endangered Species Act when it ended proven conservation measures like coyote sterilization and releases of captive red wolves and failed to respond to the ongoing decline of the species. Now, USFWS has stated that there is only one known breeding pair of red wolves left in the wild. Time is running out to do what we know is required to save this species.”

A red wolf, seen at Beardsley Zoo in Bridgeport, Connecticut. Only one known breeding red wolf pair is left in the wild. Image credit Please credit Kim Bartlett – Animal People, Inc.

The completion of the report has occurred at the same time as the USFWS has taken steps to roll back protections for red wolves in the wild. On November 4, 2018, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina issued an order declaring that the agency violated the law in gutting protections for the endangered wild red wolves in recent years. The court also made permanent its September 29, 2016, order stopping the service from capturing and killing, and authorizing private landowners to capture and kill wild red wolves not posing a threat to human safety or property.

A red wolf at Syracuse’s Rosamond Gifford Zoo. Image credit Amelia Beamish, CC BY-SA 3.0.

Conservation groups brought the federal court action over the USFWS’s decision to allow red wolves that were not causing any problems to be shot and killed by private landowners, at the same time as it rolled back conservation measures that had helped red wolves grow from four pairs released in 1987, to over 100 animals in eastern North Carolina from 2002-2014. Since those management changes were made, the red wolf population has plummeted over the past four years to as few as one known breeding pair of red wolves in the wild today.

In addition to the changes enacted in 2015, the USFWS proposed a rule on June 27, 2018, that would restrict wild red wolves to one National Wildlife Refuge and a bombing range in eastern North Carolina (map available), while allowing the immediate killing of any wolves that live on or wander onto non-federal lands in what previously had been a designated five-county Red Wolf Recovery Area. The USFWS proposal would reduce the recovery area by almost 90 percent.

In 2016, a group of 30 scientists condemned such a scenario because the limited area proposed by USFWS could not support a viable population of red wolves and its proposal was inconsistent with the best available science.

Featured image: a red wolf at the North Carolina Zoo. Image credit Valerie, CC BY-SA 3.0.

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