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Red wolves will still be protected — but more by zoos than in the wild

Two red wolves, Male 1414 and Female 1287, at SSP site Museum Life and Science in Durham, N.C., on Oct. 22, 2013. (B. Bartel/USFWS)

The federal government announced Monday that it will work to increase the captive population of endangered red wolves. The move ends years of speculation that the government might abandon a 30-year effort to reintroduce the animals into the wild. The reintroduction project will be greatly restricted, however, and some wolves may be removed from the wild.

Cindy Dohner, southeast regional director for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said doubling the number of captive wolves to 400 in zoos across the country is the only way to save red wolves. To do that, the service will attempt to increase the number of mating pairs from 29 to at least 52.

At the same time, the agency said it would remove isolated packs of wild red wolves from private lands in several North Carolina counties near where they were reintroduced and place them in a single county within the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge. Some of the wild wolves would likely be placed in zoos to shore up the mating pairs.

This North Carolina bounty wasn’t for capturing a wolf. It was for capturing a man.

The proposed changes were announced following “a two-year, two-step evaluation of the entire red wolf recovery program” that concluded that the genetic purity of the captive animals would be lost within a decade without implementation of its recommendations, according to a statement by the Fish and Wildlife Service.  Under the current management system, “we would lose the captive population,” Dohner said, because with fewer than 30 mating animals “the population is unable to sustain itself.”

But conservationist groups disagreed. Ron Sutherland of the Wildlands Network said Fish and Wildlife was in effect abandoning its plan to bring wild wolves back to their native habitat in the southeastern United States.

Sutherland said  North Carolina bullied Fish and Wildlife into folding its effort into one county. Landowners opposed to red wolf introduction turned state officials against the effort, he said, and in turn, those officials, who were once federal partners, allowed hunters to kill red wolves with impunity.

Red wolves, a canid relative of western gray wolves, were in danger of going extinct before the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service embarked on an experiment to revive them on federal land in the late 1980s. The population grew to about 150 animals before experiencing a rapid decline over the past decade from breeding mortality and car collisions, and accidents involving hunters who said they mistook the wolves for coyotes.

In the past five years, Fish and Wildlife officials frequently found dead red wolves, led to the carcasses by pinging tracking collars. The agency can account for fewer than 30 wild wolves with collars, and have estimated that there are about 15 more whose whereabouts they can’t account for.

Landowners and farmers in North Carolina have complained that the wolves are a nuisance, but few have proven that animals have killed livestock. Red wolves, like their relatives, prefer deer, which farmers also consider a nuisance.

Sutherland said Fish and Wildlife declined to work with North Carolina officials to strengthen penalties for shooting wolves, failed to engage landowners for a workable solution and turn to conservation groups to raise money to buy land that could be transformed into sanctuaries for wolves.

Decision imminent on the fate of the world’s only red wolves

“They’re shifting their entire emphasis from trying to create a self-sustaining population to growing the zoo population by up to 400 animals to prevent genetic erosion,” Sutherland said. He equated the new proposal to “one big holding pen for red wolves.”

Fish and Wildlife said opinions like Sutherland’s are countered by an exhaustive review and the science it produced. It began in 2014 with a peer-reviewed assessment by the Wildlife Management Institute. The assessment was expanded and a team reviewed the red wolf population, the historic range and how it could be sustained. “Its work led to a report with options for the service to consider,” Fish and Wildlife said on its Web site.

Red wolves are considered an endangered species, but recent genetic research suggests that they may not be sufficiently different from gray wolves to count as a separate species, and that red wolves have interbred heavily with coyotes.

Still, the agency isn’t giving up on red wolves, said Jeff Fleming, a spokesman. “I think the decision we announced today is proof to the contrary.”