Federal wildlife agency puts off decision on NC red wolf recovery effort

Betty, a female red wolf, roams in a fenced area at the Red Wolf Education Center in Columbia in 2014. The wolf is part of a captive breeding program run by the nonprofit Red Wolf Coalition.
Betty, a female red wolf, roams in a fenced area at the Red Wolf Education Center in Columbia in 2014. The wolf is part of a captive breeding program run by the nonprofit Red Wolf Coalition. jhknight@newsobserver.com

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said Tuesday that it will stop reintroducing endangered red wolves into the wild while it continues studying whether to improve or abandon its troubled program at the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge in Eastern North Carolina.

The agency put off until the end of 2015 its decision – which had been expected this week – about the fate of the 28-year-old Red Wolf Recovery Program.

The postponement comes after years of conflict between the Fish and Wildlife Service and its neighbors in five counties on the Albemarle Peninsula, and hostile relations between the federal agency and the state Wildlife Resources Commission.

In an independent review released in November by the nonprofit Wildlife Management Institute, the Fish and Wildlife Service was faulted for creating “an atmosphere of distrust” among landowners and for a weak understanding of the causes behind a perilous decline in recent years of the world’s only wild population of endangered red wolves – now estimated at 50 to 75 animals.

Cindy Dohner, Fish and Wildlife’s Southeast regional director, acknowledged the agency “did not always meet the expectations we set” for the red wolf recovery program. She promised a “thorough and deliberate” review.

“There will likely be some who will suggest we are walking away from recovery efforts for the red wolf, and simultaneously there will be others who might say we’re holding on too tight,” Dohner said in a news release. “We have a responsibility under the (Endangered Species Act) to provide good management and shepherd the conservation and recovery of this species to the best of our ability.”

Criticism from conservationists

Tuesday’s announcement means that the federal agency will suspend efforts to reintroduce captive red wolves into the five-county area – Beaufort, Dare, Hyde, Tyrrell and Washington counties – surrounding the Alligator River and Pocosin Lakes wildlife refuges. The last captive wolves to be released into the wild there were a pair of pups, in 2014. No adult wolves have been released since 2009.

The Fish and Wildlife Service said it will remove the animals from private lands at landowners’ request and will authorize landowners to kill wolves in some circumstances. Conservationists attacked the agency’s decision in June to permit a landowner to shoot a female red wolf that had produced four previous litters of pups and was believed to have left behind more young offspring when she was killed.

Some recaptured wolves will be fitted with new GPS tracking collars, replacing radio telemetry transmitters, to provide better information about the animals’ movements. Fish and Wildlife scientists will be able to identify wolves that are continually returning to the same private property, spokesman Tom MacKenzie said.

The decision to suspend reintroduction of red wolves into the wild drew criticism from conservation groups.

“Today’s disappointing decision could mean the end of a decades-long effort to bring this incredible animal back from the brink of extinction,” Sierra Weaver, a Chapel Hill-based attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center, said in a news release.

“It is USFWS’ job to promote recovery of red wolves under the Endangered Species Act,” Tara Zuardo, an attorney for the nonprofit Animal Welfare Institute, said by email. “By stifling the program, they are instead encouraging the species to go extinct and not fulfilling the mandate of the ESA.”

Breeding with coyotes

Fish and Wildlife officials said they need more time to resolve questions about whether red wolves can survive as a distinct species, coexisting with coyotes in the wild, and whether there are suitable places in North Carolina or elsewhere to establish red wolf populations. Dohner pledged the agency’s commitment to conserving and protecting red wolves but said their extinction in the wild is “one of many possibilities.”

Some evidence suggests red wolves arose from the hybridization of coyotes and gray wolves. Geneticists and other scientists from schools and government agencies will help Fish and Wildlife determine the red wolf’s status as a distinct species, Dohner said in a briefing for reporters.

Red wolves were declared extinct in the wild in 1980. The Fish and Wildlife Service’s program to reintroduce the animals began in 1987 at the Alligator River refuge in Dare and Hyde counties.

The effort was hailed as a national model for bringing species back from the brink of extinction. But private-property owners in the five-county Eastern North Carolina area increasingly complained about wolves, and hunters claimed they were killing too many deer.

U.S. District Judge Terrence W. Boyle approved a plan in November to ban the nighttime hunting of coyotes in the Red Wolf Recovery Area to reduce the accidental shootings of red wolves – which resemble coyotes.

The state Wildlife Resources Commission has promoted trapping and hunting in recent years to reduce coyote attacks on livestock and pets. Across the state, hunters killed 27,000 coyotes in 2013.

In February, the Wildlife Resources Commission asked the Fish and Wildlife Service to abandon its efforts to return red wolves to the wild. The commission said problems included crossbreeding of wolves with coyotes, wolves wandering onto private land and the federal program’s failure to meet its goals.

Recovery effort criticized

The nonprofit Wildlife Management Institute reported in November that federal authorities had oversold their ability to keep endangered red wolves from straying onto private lands near the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge.

“It’s clear to us that wolves don’t recognize landowner boundaries,” Steve Williams, president of the Wildlife Management Institute, which conducted the review, told reporters in November. “The idea that wolves would stay on federal land doesn’t make sense and isn’t what’s happening today.”

Its report called for improvements in science, management and public relations:

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service should expand the red wolf program in two locations elsewhere in the United States. Sea-level rise is reducing the available federal wildlife refuge lands on North Carolina’s Albemarle Peninsula, and the wolves will need a more extended habitat, including public and private lands, in other parts of the country.

Coyotes posed a continued threat because they compete and interbreed with wolves in the five-county area – a risk that would follow the recovery effort in other parts of the United States. Because of the widespread range of coyotes, it is not clear whether the wolves can ever recover on their own without sustained human help.

Fish and Wildlife officials appeared to have made a good start with a “placeholder” program that sterilizes coyotes while leaving them in place to keep out other coyotes that would breed with wolves. But the agency had not analyzed the program to determine how effective it will be, and it had not evaluated alternatives.

Fish and Wildlife was “overly optimistic and scientifically unsound” in its original hope to keep the red wolves off private lands, managing the animals inside the 144,000-acre Alligator River refuge. The agency also managed the program poorly, putting it under the control of local wildlife refuge officials who received inadequate support and oversight from a national level.

“WMI expected greater oversight and support for a landmark recovery program involving one of the most imperiled canids in the world,” the November report said.

Private landowners were “arguably the key stakeholders in this recovery program,” but Alligator River officials failed to build support from their neighbors and broke a promise to retrieve wolves that strayed onto private lands.