The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has agreed to a review of the red wolf program that could end a 27-year experiment to restore the rare predators on North Carolina's coast.
The 90 to 110 endangered wolves that roam the Albemarle peninsula on the northeastern coast have been under fire for several years. A growing number of gunshot deaths threaten the group's ability to reproduce.
A federal judge in May temporarily banned hunting for coyotes, which are often mistaken for wolves, in the five-county wolf territory. The ruling came after three advocacy groups sued to block the state's open season on coyotes, which often attack pets.
This month, the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission asked the federal agency to "determine the appropriateness of continuing the experimental (wolf) program."
Fish and Wildlife ended a seven-year effort to establish red wolves in Great Smoky Mountains National Park in 1998. Too many pups died and, the state commission said, adults weren't able to stay within the 521,000-acre park.
The commission questions whether the federal program can achieve its goal of establishing a "self-sustaining" wolf population on federal land. Much of the wolf range on the Albemarle peninsula is privately owned.
It quotes the federal Endangered Species Act as requiring the agency to estimate the time and cost to achieve the recovery goal.
Gordon Myers, the wildlife commission's executive director, declined comment Friday because of the coyote-shooting lawsuit. U.S. District Judge Terrence Boyle is to review the ban in November.
The Fish and Wildlife Service agreed to do the review of the wolf program, which it said was due anyway.
"All the options, every time we do one of these evaluations, are on the table," said Leo Miranda, an assistant regional director in Atlanta. "It's everything from status quo to modifying the program to canceling the program like we did back in 1998."
But Miranda called the recovery effort "extremely successful" for meeting its population goal of 45 to 55 wolves in 1995 and saving the animals from extinction in the wild.
Opinion about the wolves in the Albemarle region appears mixed.
Initial resentment after their release in the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge in 1987 appears to have cooled, but some landowners still rail against the animals in online forums. Wildlife groups say more than 55,000 comments in favor of the wolf program have been sent to the Fish and Wildlife Service.
Red wolves are among the world's rarest animals. Apart from the Albemarle packs, about 200 live in captivity. Fish and Wildlife would like to establish wolves in the wild at an additional site, Miranda said.
The Southern Environmental Law Center, which represented three advocacy groups in seeking the halt to coyote shooting, said it's concerned if the wildlife commission's goal is to end the wolf program.
Attorney Sierra Weaver said the center doesn't object to a fresh look at a program, which she called "one of the most successful, if not the most successful, carnivore reintroductions in the country."
Nothing in endangered-species law requires that the wolves stay on federal land, Weaver said. Agreements among state and federal agencies and local landowners have worked well to resolve conflicts, she added.
A key threat to wolves is cross-breeding with coyotes, which now blanket the state. But the North Carolina commission this month took away a tool to combat hybridization.
The commission said it would no longer allow federal biologists to trap, sterilize and release coyotes on private land. Those "placeholders" can't produce hybrid pups and their presence discourages other coyotes from moving into wolf habitat.
Myers, the commission's director, told Fish and Wildlife that landowners should be able to shoot coyotes, including sterilized animals. Since the ban prevents that, he wrote the agency early this month, federal biologists will have to kill any coyotes they trap on private property instead of releasing them.
The federal agency is looking for other ways to control hybridization, said red wolf recovery coordinator David Rabon. But it also hopes the state will let coyote sterilizations resume.
"We felt like that was a very good tool," he said.
Weaver, from the law center, said the state's move "seems to be a petty attempt to sabotage the red wolf program." She said it hampers both wolf recovery and efforts to control coyote populations.
Gunshot deaths of wolves on the Albemarle peninsula have climbed in recent years, to nine cases in 2013. Only two wolves have died of suspected or confirmed gunshots so far this year, but most fatal shootings have occurred in the fall.
Henderson: 704-358-5051; Twitter: @bhender