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A federal judge ruled Monday that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service violated federal law in its rollback of protections for the critically endangered North Carolina red wolf.
Chief Judge Terrence W. Boyle of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina ruled that the agency violated the Endangered Species Act and the National Environmental Policy Act, according to court documents.
“The wild red wolf is again close to extinction, with as few as forty wolves identified in the wild in April 2018,” the order reads. The wolves were designated an endangered species in 1967, one year after the Endangered Species Preservation Act went into effect. In 1980, the species was declared extinct in the wild, according to court documents.
The wildlife service was tasked in 1986 with trying to help the species recover through management and reintroduction programs.
In 2015, under the Obama administration the agency was accused in a lawsuit filed by four conservation groups of allowing “red wolves that were not causing any problems to be shot and killed by private landowners.” The lawsuit also accused the federal agency of rolling back measures that had helped the red wolf population grow from 16 in 1987 to more than 130.
“Since the USFWS abandoned its red wolf recovery responsibilities, the red wolf population has plummeted,” according to a news release from the plaintiffs — the Red Wolf Coalition, the Animal Welfare Institute and Defenders of Wildlife. The Southern Environmental Law Center represented the plaintiffs.
“Taken together, these actions go beyond the agency’s discretion and operate to violate (the USFWS’) mandate to recover this species in the wild,” Boyle wrote in his order issued Monday.
“Boyle also made permanent the court’s September 29, 2016, order stopping the USFWS from capturing and killing red wolves and authorizing private landowners to do the same,” the conservation groups said.
In June, officials with the wildlife agency, now under the Trump administration, proposed a new rule that would limit red wolves to a National Wildlife Refuge and Air Force bombing range in eastern North Carolina. Any wolves outside that area could be legally killed — reducing the previous recovery area by nearly 90 percent.
“In 2016, a group of 30 scientists condemned such a scenario because the limited area proposed by the USFWS could not support a viable population of red wolves and its proposal was inconsistent with the best available science,” according to the news release from the conservation groups.
The wildlife service allowed the public to comment on its proposal, and nearly all of the more than 108,000 comments opposed limiting the wolves’ protected area. Fewer than 50 comments supported the proposal, and at least 13 of those were from one real estate developer, the conservation groups said.
North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper asked federal officials not to limit protections for the wolves in a July letter, the Associated Press reported.
“The wild red wolf is part of the cultural and economic fabric of our state and is the only wolf unique to the United States.” Cooper wrote. “There is a viable path forward for North Carolina’s red wolves living in the wild.”
Cooper said he instructed state agencies to work with federal officials on red wolf conservation.
Fewer than 40 red wolves remain in the wild today, and all of them live in eastern North Carolina. A decade ago, there were more than 100. Another 200 red wolves live in captive breeding programs, according to the wildlife service.
“The service knows how to protect and recover the red wolf in the wild, but it stopped listening to its scientists and started listening to bureaucrats instead. The law doesn’t allow the agency to just walk away from species conservation, like it did here,” Sierra Weaver, senior attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center, told The News & Observer in an emailed statement Monday.