Last week, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service released its plan for the future of the red wolf recovery program in North Carolina. Rather than confront the real challenges facing the effort to recover the world’s most endangered wolf species, FWS instead presented a roadmap for a disastrous retreat, announcing that it was going to try to save red wolves by pulling them out of the wild and forcing them into captivity.
The agency made a vague promise to look for new areas where red wolves could be released and work with stakeholders on future recovery efforts. However, FWS is paying lip service to wolf recovery if all it’s really going to do is relegate red wolves to spending the rest of their lives in zoos.
It’s been two years since FWS has actively managed red wolf recovery in North Carolina, but we were still stunned to see it all but abandon the program. The announcement was especially tone-deaf in light of the overwhelming public support for recovering red wolves in North Carolina, as a recent poll showed that over 80 percent of North Carolinians say the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service should do everything it can to recover the red wolf and prevent its extinction.
FWS argues that this plan will help enhance the genetic diversity of the captive red wolf population and that additional resources will be allocated to captive breeding programs to double the number of breeding red wolf pairs in facilities across the country. This is just a red herring. The captive red wolf population is not in danger, at least not to the extent that the FWS would have us believe. The wild population is, however. A successful species recovery and reintroduction program uses captive-bred animals to bolster the wild population – not the other way around. Capturing wild red wolves, transferring them to zoos and captivity is immensely stressful and can be deadly for these wild creatures. To claim that doing so is in the wolves’ best interest is disingenuous.
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Only about 45 wild red wolves remain in the recovery area. If FWS has its way, most of these wolves will be rounded up and put into captivity, leaving barely enough space for two remaining packs to survive in the wild on one single refuge and a bombing range.
Once, red wolves roamed the entire Southeastern United States. Thirty years ago, they were released into the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge and given five counties – 1.7 million acres – of habitat to rekindle their devastated population. The new proposal, however, would strip these animals of nearly 90 percent of that habitat. They would be restricted to a meager 200,000 acres of federal land, and the wolves that don’t fit will simply be removed.
Conservation advocates in North Carolina aren’t taking this decision lying down. Defenders of Wildlife is fighting in the courts to stop the removal of red wolves from private property at landowner request, and when the public comment period opens for FWS’ disastrous proposal to remove red wolves from the wild, Defenders of Wildlife and our conservation allies will be organizing red wolf supporters to stand up for their native wolf.
The shock and disappointment following this decision from FWS beg the question: why? Why would a federal agency, charged with conserving and protecting our nation’s endangered species, walk away from one of the most critically endangered creatures in our country? Why would this agency fold to political pressure for years on end? Why is the FWS kicking the can down the road, right when the species needs its support and recommitment to survive in the wild?
We are left shaking our heads in disbelief, while we regroup and reorganize our own efforts to reflect on the inadequacies of the FWS’s ill-conceived proposal. Those of us who support the wild red wolf will not be daunted – we will continue to stand up, speak out, and work tirelessly for the future of this species.
Heather Clarkson is in charge of conservation outreach in the Raleigh area for Defenders of Wildlife.