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The effort to save red wolves in the wild is failing, a five-year review says

Red wolves at the North Carolina Museum of Life and Science in Durham. (Salwan Georges/The Washington Post)

The federal government’s bid to keep North America’s only distinctive wolf from disappearing in the wild is in deep trouble, according to a review of an endangered species program that was established to save red wolves.

A colony of red wolves that was reintroduced in North Carolina in 1987 is failing because of poor management and fierce state opposition from game officials and hunters who are killing it, said the five-year review, prepared by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Southeastern Regional Office and released Tuesday.

Red wolves were declared extinct in the wild in the 1970s when their populations were devastated by hunters and their habitat was overtaken by coyotes, but a few were bred in zoos. After an experimental population was released at the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge near the Outer Banks, the group managed to reach an estimated 130 wolves in 2006. The number currently stands at about 40, a decline more rapid than even the worst-case scenarios had predicted, federal officials said.

“There is consensus that the current direction and management … is unacceptable to the Service and stakeholders,” the review said. And “it is obvious that there are significant threats … in eastern North Carolina and conditions for recovery of the species are not favorable and a self-sustainable population may not be possible.”

Fish and Wildlife vowed to soldier on with its attempt to revive the animals at the refuge, saying it will continue to recognize red wolves “as the species Canis rufus.” Treating the population as a species puts the agency in defiance of North Carolina wildlife officials and some scientists, who say the animals are a hybrid created either by a union of gray wolves and coyotes or are the remnants of a bygone species of pure coyotes.

The fight over the fate of red wolves is playing out at a time when Republicans in Congress are waging an effort to alter the Endangered Species Act in a way that would make protecting plants and animals more difficult. For example, proposed legislation would strike down a rule that commands federal officials to conserve species regardless of the economic effect on a community in and around their habitats.

Conservationists say red wolves are arguably the most endangered mammal on the planet, considering that there are 2,000 Bengal tigers in the wild and more than 1,500 giant pandas, compared with fewer than three dozen wild red wolves. About 200 red wolves are in zoos.

North Carolina’s top wildlife official, Gordon Myers, said it’s time to let red wolves disappear, at least from his state. Conservationists who criticize Fish and Wildlife’s management of the reintroduction program say the managers were so tightly focused on introducing red wolves that they failed to reach out to residents in the area and attempt to help them appreciate the animals. That allowed opponents to demonize them.

A broader plan to better manage the wolves is being drafted and is expected this summer, said Fish and Wildlife, a division of the Interior Department, but critics say it is clear that the agency’s heart is not in making the reintroduction work.

One conservationist group devoted to protecting red wolves in North Carolina took issue with Fish and Wildlife’s characterization of its own program. Ron Sutherland of the Wildlands Network in Durham said the program is failing because Fish and Wildlife gave up on it.

“We’re disappointed that the … status review appears to take great pains to describe the North Carolina wild population of red wolves as unsustainable without acknowledging the fact that the decision by FWS leadership to functionally abandon the program is what has led to the striking recent declines in red wolf numbers since 2012,” Sutherland said.

“They stopped releasing new wolves from captivity, they stopped managing coyotes, and they’ve sat back and watched as gunshot mortality shredded the red wolf population,” he said.

“Time is running out for red wolves,” said Collette Adkins, a biologist and attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity. “For starters, we need immediate measures in place to stop people from killing them.”

Gunshot wounds have been the No. 1 cause of death, but automobile collisions also contribute to their mortality. Meanwhile, breeding with coyotes looms as a threat to their genetic distinctiveness. Coyotes were rare in the area when the wolves were introduced in 1987 to start a new colony. But now coyotes proliferate not only at the refuge, but across much of the eastern United States — ironically because of a 20th-century state-sponsored eradication of wolves, which once killed coyotes and kept their population down.

Several pages of the review are devoted to a long-running debate over whether red wolves are actually part or largely a form of coyote. More than a half-dozen research papers, genetic testing and even a working group of experts have failed to arrive at a clear answer. Congress this year ordered the Interior Department to conduct a definitive study of the red wolf’s origin.

For now, “given the fact that the scientific community is not in agreement on the question of red wolf” origin, Fish and Wildlife will recognize them as wolves, the review said.

But it might not be able to save them in North Carolina. Fish and Wildlife hinted that it might reduce the number of wolves in the state and establish at least one additional population elsewhere.

“With only one non-essential experimental population in the wild, additional populations are necessary to red wolf viability and, therefore, its ability to persist in the wild,” the report said. The agency has yet to conduct an analysis of potential new reintroduction areas, but an evaluation is coming.

The review criticized their current territory at a wildlife refuge full of black bears, raccoons and birds as a “marginal habitat … not preferred by the red wolf.”

Landowners’ opposition is a problem that has vexed red wolf program managers. Fish and Wildlife has failed to stop people from killing the wolves and once even issued a permit to kill a wolf, prompting a lawsuit that triggered an injunction against the permits. Wolves have been found dead from gunshot wounds with tracking collars still around their necks. On a few occasions, hunters have said that they killed a red wolf after mistaking it for coyotes, which can be shot on sight, according to state law.

Such shootings, particularly in the red wolves’ breeding season, are debilitating. However, the review did not discuss tougher regulations against killing red wolves. Instead, it argues for reducing a population that is already small.

“A smaller wild population will better allow for the support of the captive population component of the red wolf program,” it said.

Sutherland, like other conservationists, was livid.  “They repeat several times that saving the wolves will be expensive and time-consuming — hinting at the agency’s reticence to keep working on actual recovery,” he said. “They sound like children who have been asked to complete a chore they don’t want to do.”

Read more:

Scientists say the government’s new plan to manage red wolves is backward

In a switch, there’s a bounty on hunters, not wolves, in N.C.

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