The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service postponed for a second time Tuesday a decision on the fate of its struggling effort to restore the endangered red wolf in northeastern North Carolina.
Cindy Dohner, Fish and Wildlife’s southeast regional director, said an advisory team including critics and scientists will help the agency decide by summer 2016 whether to improve or abandon the 28-year-old red wolf recovery program in five counties centered around wildlife refuge lands on the Albemarle Peninsula. The effort has long been unpopular with farmers and deer hunters in the region.
After a study by the nonprofit Wildlife Management Institute last November criticized the agency for failures in science, management and public relations, Fish and Wildlife said it would figure out what to do by June 2015. The decision date was pushed off to December and postponed again Tuesday.
“We do expect to complete this recovery strategy ... by summer 2016,” Dohner told reporters in a telephone conference call from her Atlanta office. “We know this is a very, very ambitious timetable.”
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A ‘downward trend’
The Fish and Wildlife program supports the world’s only wild population of red wolves, whose numbers have plunged from a peak of about 130 in 2006 to an estimated 50 to 75 this year.
“The population has been on a kind of downward trend for the last couple of years,” said Pete Benjamin, a Raleigh-based Fish and Wildlife field supervisor. “We don’t know all the reasons for that. We’re continuing some population modeling to look at those factors.”
Officials logged 11 wolf deaths in the past 12 months, blaming at least four on gunshot and trapping. Fish and Wildlife said in June it had stopped releasing red wolf pups, born in captivity, into the wild.
Benjamin will serve on the advisory panel along with landowners, scientists, conservationists and a representative from the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission, which has called on the federal agency to abandon the recovery program. The state agency says problems with the effort include wolves crossbreeding with coyotes and straying onto private lands.
Any program that is successful requires buy-in, particularly in a program that is operating largely on private lands.
Gordon Myers, N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission
“Any program that is successful requires buy-in, particularly in a program that is operating largely on private lands,” said Gordon Myers, the wildlife commission’s executive director, who joined Dohner for the telephone conference.
Conservationists have said Fish and Wildlife is failing to meet its responsibility to protect the animals. Three conservation groups filed notice in September that they plan to sue the federal agency for permitting landowners to shoot wolves. Dohner said one of the three groups, Defenders of Wildlife, also is represented on Fish and Wildlife’s advisory panel.
She said the Fish and Wildlife review will address a contention by the Wildlife Resources Commission that the red wolf is not a distinct species.
“There are a lot of different factors we are looking at,” Dohner said. “People question the genetics of the red wolf. … The service truly believes it is a species.”