The Endangered Red Wolf
The red wolf (Canis rufus) is one of the world’s most endangered wild canids. Once common throughout the southeastern United States, red wolf populations were decimated by the 1960s due to intensive predator control programs and loss of habitat. A remnant population of red wolves was found along the Gulf coast of Texas and Louisiana. After being declared an endangered species in 1973, efforts were initiated to locate and capture as many wild red wolves as possible. Of the 17 remaining wolves captured by biologists, 14 became the founders of a successful captive breeding program. Consequently, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) declared red wolves extinct in the wild in 1980.
By 1987, enough red wolves were bred in captivity to begin a restoration program to return the species to a portion of their traditional range in the southeast United States. For over two decades the USFWS has been restoring red wolves to the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge in northeastern North Carolina. And in 2004, the WCC joined the recovery effort via its acceptance into the Red Wolf Species Survival Plan and has played a critical role in preserving and protecting these imperiled species through carefully managed breeding and reintroduction. To date, the WCC has welcomed four red wolf litters (2010, 2015, and two in 2018) and a single red wolf from the WCC has been given the extraordinary opportunity to resume his rightful place on the wild landscape. As of the start of 2020, the WCC is home to 20 red wolves. 18 of our resident red wolves occupy enclosures in the WCC’s Endangered Species Facility. These enclosures are private and secluded, and the wolves are not on exhibit for the public.The WCC’s two other red wolves reside on exhibit in the Red Wolf Exhibit which opened in October of 2009. For the first time ever visitors to the WCC are given the opportunity to see this rare and elusive species.
Only 11 Known Red Wolves Are Left; What Happens Next
The WCC is generally home to 15 – 20 red wolves. Every one of them beautiful, and all valuable contributions to the recovery of their rare and at-risk species. But as things stand, these wolves exist in a world that currently has only one place for them in the wild – North Carolina – and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) seeks to take that place away.
Recipe for Extinction
In June 2018, the USFWS released its proposal for managing the last wild red wolves – a single population in eastern North Carolina consisting of fewer than 30 individuals. The Service proposed to reduce the red wolf recovery area by nearly 90 percent and limit the wild population to just 10 – 15 wolves. The proposal would also eliminate protections for any red wolves that wander off the newly-designated recovery area, effectively allowing anyone to kill red wolves on private lands, for any reason.
Americans Overwhelmingly Support Red Wolf Recovery
Endangered species recovery is a matter of pride and concern for all U.S. citizens. When USFWS solicited public comments on its draft proposal, the plan was met with near-unanimous opposition from the American public. Out of 108,124 comments submitted between June 28th and August 28th, 99.9 percent favored the need for strong federal protections for red wolves.
Only 19 comments explicitly supported the agency’s plan to eliminate red wolf protections and shrink the recovery area. Thirty additional comments – with 13 of these coming from a single real estate developer – expressed general opposition to red wolf recovery.
Red Wolf Victory
With the opportunity to comment closed and USFWS’s decision poised to be finalized by November 30, the future for red wolves remained on shaky ground. Without a renewed federal commitment to save the last wild red wolves, one of the few apex predators to roam the U.S. Southeast would be relegated to the history books.
Enter Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC), a non-profit law firm representing a coalition of conservation groups who initiated a lawsuit against USFWS in 2015 for authorizing the capturing and killing of non-problem red wolves, and abandoning conservation measures that had been used for decades. In an October court hearing, SELC asked the federal judge to intervene as USFWS’s imminent plan would hasten the animal’s extinction and be a further violation of federal law.
Examining USFWS’s decisions to allow private landowners to shoot and kill red wolves, to end captive-to-wild release events, and to end efforts to prevent hybridization with coyotes, the court ruled on November 5 that USFWS violated legal requirements to protect and recover the world’s last wild red wolves. The Judge also made permanent the court’s September 29, 2016 order stopping the USFWS from capturing and killing red wolves and authorizing private landowners to do the same.
USFWS Announces Delay Decision
On November 29, just three weeks after a federal judge ruled that USFWS has a duty under the Endangered Species Act to implement proactive conservation measures to achieve species recovery, USFWS announced its decision to delay any action re its proposed rule change.
“In light of a federal court ruling issued earlier this month in the Eastern District of North Carolina, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is extending its review of a proposed rule to adapt its management of red wolves in the state. The additional review time will provide the Service the opportunity to fully evaluate the implications of the court decision.”
We don’t know. So now, while we wait for USFWS to make the next move, this is what we know:
1. Americans overwhelmingly support red wolf recovery.
2. The federal court ruling makes clear that the USFWS must bring its efforts back in line with the conservation mandate of the ESA.
3. Only 11 wild red wolves are known to remain.
The current estimate puts the only wild population of red wolves at their lowest level since the late 1990s. Only 12 red wolves are known to remain in the wild.