Fish and Wildlife faulted in red wolf shootings

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service violated the Endangered Species Act twice in the past two years when it gave private landowners permission to kill endangered red wolves near the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge in northeastern North Carolina, conservationists said Tuesday in a letter to the agency.

The Southern Environmental Law Center, representing three wildlife conservation groups, filed notice of its intent to sue the agency in federal court. In a 13-page letter, the attorneys said Fish and Wildlife officials allowed wolves to be killed on private land without first making an effort, required by law, to trap them alive.

“Red wolves are endangered because they need protection and effective management to thrive,” Jason Rylander, an attorney for Defenders of Wildlife, said in a news release. “Allowing the killing of a breeding female wolf is the exact opposite of managing red wolves for recovery.”

Fish and Wildlife has struggled to manage the only existing wild population of red wolves, whose numbers have plunged in recent years from a peak of around 130 in 2006 to an estimated 50 to 75 animals this summer. Nearly two dozen wolves have died from gunshot in recent years, and biologists have counted fewer pups born each year – 19 last year, down from 30 to 50 in previous years.

In June the agency said it would stop reintroducing wolves into the wild and will decide by the end of the year whether to improve or abandon its 28-year-old Red Wolf Recovery Program in five counties on the Albemarle Peninsula. The effort has been marked by years of conflict between Fish and Wildlife and private landowners, and hostile relations with hunters and the state Wildlife Resources Commission. Conservationists have said that the agency is failing to meet its responsibility to protect the endangered wolves.

Fish and Wildlife officials said in June they had allowed the killing of a female wolf after the landowner attempted to trap the animal. The landowner would not allow federal biologists onto the property, the agency said.

“We’re comfortable we have the authority to take these management actions,” Tom MacKenzie, a Fish and Wildlife Service spokesman, said Tuesday.

Tara Zuardo, an attorney with the Animal Welfare Institute, said federal officials should have tried to save the animal.

“There is no evidence that this wolf was causing any harm,” Zuardo said in a news release. “At this point, there appears to be no difference between being able to kill a coyote or a red wolf – just which agency you request a permit from.”

Bruce Siceloff: 919-829-4527, @Road_Worrier