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U.S. Fish and Wildlife faces lawsuit over red wolf program

Betty, a female red wolf, roams in a fenced area at the Red Wolf Education Center in Columbia, NC February 10, 2014. The wolf is part of a captive breeding program at the coalition.
Betty, a female red wolf, roams in a fenced area at the Red Wolf Education Center in Columbia, NC February 10, 2014. The wolf is part of a captive breeding program at the coalition. jhknight@newsobserver.com

The world’s only wild red wolves are in jeopardy because the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is failing to protect them as required by the Endangered Species Act, environmentalists charged in a lawsuit filed this week in federal court.

Three conservation groups contend that Fish and Wildlife officials in northeastern North Carolina acted illegally twice in the past two years when they gave private landowners permission to kill red wolves.

The lawsuit, filed in U.S. Eastern District Court in Raleigh, also criticizes the agency for decisions to stop introducing red wolf pups, born in captivity, into the wild, and to stop sterilizing coyotes that interbreed with red wolves.

“The wild survival of America’s rarest wolf depends on whether the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service acts responsibly and fulfills its legal duty,” Sierra Weaver of the Southern Environmental Law Center, attorney for the conservation groups, said in a news release.

Fish and Wildlife is considering whether to improve or abandon its 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.

A study by the nonprofit Wildlife Management Institute in November 2014 criticized the agency for failures in science, management and public relations. The wolves’ numbers have plunged in recent years from a peak of around 130 in 2006 to an estimated 50 to 75 animals this summer.

Agency officials declined to comment on the lawsuit Friday.

“We are currently reviewing the entire red wolf program to get the science right and work towards recovery with our partners,” Leo Miranda, an assistant regional director in the Fish and Wildlife Southeast Regional Office, said by email. “A newly established recovery team is working to address the conservation of this species on the landscape.”

The lawsuit was filed by the Red Wolf Coalition, Defenders of Wildlife and the Animal Welfare Institute.

They argued that Fish and Wildlife was wrong to allow private landowners to kill wolves without first making attempts to trap the animals alive. A landowner was allowed in June to shoot a female wolf that had previously produced four litters with 16 wolf pups, the lawsuit said.

Bruce Siceloff: 919-829-4527, @Road_Worrier

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