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The government was letting residents kill nearly extinct wolves. A court said stop.

Two red wolves at the Museum of Life and Science in Durham, N.C. (B. Bartel/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

A federal district court in North Carolina issued a preliminary injunction Thursday barring the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service from capturing and removing red wolves in the state or issuing permits that allow private landowners to kill the animals when they stray onto their property.

The ruling by Judge Terrence W. Boyle at the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina was the latest shot in the war over the federal government’s management of a small population of wolves in North Carolina.

Fish and Wildlife placed red wolves at the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge 30 years ago in the hopes of reestablishing them in the wild.

But opposition to the presence of wolves from landowners and state officials led the federal agency to capture some nuisance wolves and permit others to be killed. Conservation groups pushed back with a recent lawsuit that resulted in Thursday’s decision.

Fish and Wildlife is “enjoined from taking red wolves, either directly or by landowner authorization without first demonstrating that such red wolves are a threat to human safety or the safety of livestock or pets,” Boyle wrote in a decision. The judge said any other decision would ignore that Congress had mandated the program to prevent the extinction of red wolves.

“It is not for this court to permit action or inaction which would have an effect counter to Congress’ goals,” Boyle wrote. Unless Fish and Wildlife decides to terminate the program, the court must respect the wish of Congress over loud, vocal opposition against red wolves, the judge said.

The decision comes slightly more than two weeks after Fish and Wildlife announced that it was considering a proposal to remove most of the red wolf population from North Carolina and place the animals in zoos run by its management partners throughout the country.

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Cindy Dohner, southeast regional director for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said doubling the number of captive wolves would allow the agency to increase the number of mating pairs in an effort to save them. Dohner said the 29 mating pairs currently in the wild cannot sustain the population. The goal is to reach 52 pairs. After a long public comment period, the agency will decide whether to finalize its newest management proposal in December 2017.

It wasn’t immediately clear how the court ruling could affect those plans. “We have the judge’s ruling and are talking with our lawyers over at the Justice Department,” said Jeff Fleming, a spokesman for the southeast region. “Nothing to add beyond that at this time.”

The lawsuit challenging Fish and Wildlife management was filed by a coalition of wildlife groups that hailed the court’s decision. They are Defenders of Wildlife, the Red Wolf Coalition, the Southern Environmental Law Center and the Animal Welfare Institute.

“We want to make sure nothing is done to hurt this population while Fish and Wildlife is deciding what should be done for their future,” said Jason Rylander, a senior staff attorney for Defenders of Wildlife.

Rylander said Fish and Wildlife declined to remove wolves from the population for decades, then suddenly in recent months “a vocal set of landowners caused them to manage differently. They stopped all the things that made this a successful program.”

The wolves were already imperiled because North Carolina game officials allowed coyotes to be hunted in the middle of their habitat. As a result, many wolves mistaken for coyotes were shot. To compound that problem, Fish and Wildlife captured wolves that strayed on private land or wandered off from the wildlife refuge. One female was captured and taken away from pups that needed her to survive and another was hit by a car while crossing a road back to its territory, Rylander said.

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According to the coalition, a majority of North Carolinians — more than 70 percent — support red wolf recovery. “This is a great day for red wolves and for anyone who loves nature in eastern North Carolina,” said Sierra Weaver, an attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center.

Another conservation group outside the coalition had a harsher view of what it called Fish and Wildlife’s capitulation to landowners. Ron Sutherland of Wildlands Network said Fish and Wildlife encourages the policing of poaching and wildlife slaughtering elsewhere while standing by as it happens in North Carolina.

“Americans see images of elite anti-poaching rangers in Africa everyday in our social media feeds and TV screens,” Sutherland said. “Why is it that here at home, our own federal wildlife agency … sat on their hands while the red wolf has been slaughtered to the brink of extinction in the wild?”