In a proposal that would essentially end a 30-year effort to reestablish critically endangered American red wolves in North Carolina, the Interior Department on Wednesday announced a plan that would allow private landowners to kill wolves that stray onto their property from a protected federal wildlife refuge.
U.S. Fish and Wildlife officials who presented the proposal in a news conference said the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge, which supports about a dozen of the 35 red wolves that roam a five-county area in eastern North Carolina, would be the only place where they would be safe.
The service’s new objective, said Leopoldo Miranda, assistant director for ecological services in the agency’s Southeast region, would be to intensively manage a small population of 10 to 15 red wolves at the refuge to preserve their genetic value and wild behaviors in the hopes that officials can find a location more friendly and suitable than eastern North Carolina.
Miranda declined to name areas that are in consideration to relocate the wolves. But he said that the process of identifying an area and securing an agreement to introduce wolves would probably take three years.
“Success for me right now is to keep this smaller wild population as intact as possible,” Miranda said. It will take hard work, outreach with state officials and conservation groups dedicated to saving red wolves, and research that can guide government officials to more supportive habitat.
North Carolina game officials have openly opposed the presence of red wolves in their state, and conservationists have said Interior’s management of red wolves in recent years betrayed the mission to preserve them. The new proposal fueled the anger.
“The Fish and Wildlife Service isn’t just neglecting its duties, it’s actively undermining its own role as the protector of our nation’s endangered species,” said Rep. Raúl M. Grijalva (Ariz.), the ranking Democrat on the House Natural Resources Committee. “Their only native home is the United States. FWS is passing a death sentence on an animal as American as the bald eagle.”
A public meeting is set for July 10 in Manteo, N.C., and the public comment period starts Thursday and will conclude at the end of next month.
If the proposal goes into effect in November, as officials propose, up to two dozen red wolves outside the refuge would be left to survive on their own or potentially be legally shot by property owners who have long been hostile to their presence.
Like all wolves, red wolves are predators of mostly small game, and they naturally stray from boundaries drawn by humans. Before a federal court stopped the Fish and Wildlife Service from issuing permits to shoot wolves two years ago, the agency received at least 400 requests from landowners to kill them.
Miranda acknowledged that no red wolves can be killed with a court injunction in place and suggested that a final decision hinged in part on Fish and Wildlife’s proposal. But Ramona McGee, a staff attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center, which filed the lawsuit that triggered the injunction, disagreed.
“The court has all the information it needs,” McGee said. She called the service’s recent management of red wolves “an egregious violation of the Endangered Species Act” and said the “injunction remains in place until the Fish and Wildlife Service goes to the court and asks to have it removed.”
“We’re very disappointed in this plan,” McGee said of the proposal. “It’s a plan that effectively dooms the red wolf in the wild. It’s not enough to sustain a population, and if they wander off that [refuge] they can be shot and killed the moment they cross that boundary.”
Other conservationists agreed. “Not only is this proposal indefensible, based on the science and the basic ecology of wolves, but it amounts to a cruel disregard for red wolves that is an absolute shame and should not be tolerated,” said Ben Prater, director of the southeast program for Defenders of Wildlife.
“We’re very frustrated that the agency has continued to ignore the will of the American people on the red wolf issue. In 2016 conservation groups worked together to deliver a petition with half a million names calling on the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to do more to save the red wolf,” said Ron Sutherland, a conservation scientist for the Wildlands Network.
The decision to maintain such a small population of wild red wolves means that the vast majority of the 200 captive wolves held in zoos across the nation will never live outside a cage. “This is heartbreaking for us,” Sutherland said.
Red wolves roamed the entire southeastern United States before government-sanctioned hunting programs all but eliminated them. The animals were so desperate to survive that they started breeding with smaller coyotes that they once chased away or killed.
Fish and Wildlife Service recovered a few red wolves that remained in Texas and Louisiana in the 1970s and made an arrangement with zoos to breed them in captivity. In 1987, an experimental population of captive wolves was released into the North Carolina refuge in a bid to recover the animals.
The two breeding pairs expanded to nearly 140 in the early 2000s before hunting accidents and automobile collisions led to a steep decline. Once again, red wolves also started breeding with coyotes, which are thriving in the absence of competition from species such as gray wolves, red wolves and mountain lions.
The calculus for relocating red wolves in their historic habitat is daunting. More than a quarter of it is now made up of farms. Thirteen percent is either developed urban space or timber plantations, with 147 million people living there.
But half of it is still grassland, forests, shrub land and wetlands. About 10 percent is owned by taxpayers, according to a study that identified potential sites for Fish and Wildlife. At least one state, Arkansas, was identified as a place where red wolves could exist.
Red wolves “may be capable of successful reintroduction to both human altered and natural landscapes,” said the study, which Fish and Wildlife provided, as long as there are fewer humans to limit encounters and as long as the natural landscape is not fragmented.
Miranda said Fish and Wildlife would have to do a better job of selling the wolves to the host area than it did in North Carolina, where the absence of a positive narrative was filled by landowners with a decidedly negative spin.
“I’m the first who will say we dropped the ball in terms of reaching out to landowners,” Miranda said. “We dropped the ball and here we are.”
North Carolina is fighting coyotes through hunting permits. Red wolves are sometimes shot by hunters who said they confused them with coyotes. Landowners opposed to red wolves also complained that the wolves killed livestock and reduced game animals such as deer that people like to hunt.
But data released Tuesday disputed that, as Sutherland pointed out: “Ironically, despite all of the hatred spewed at the wolves, [Fish and Wildlife] indicates that only seven confirmed cases of livestock depredation, all small animals like chickens and goats, have occurred since 1987.”
Correction: This article originally stated that the public comment period starts Wednesday. It begins on Thursday, June 28.