Red wolves need protection, not an extinction plan

Changes to the Endangered Species Act proposed by the Trump administration could end federal protection of the three dozen remaining red wolves in North Carolina, wildlife advocates say.
Changes to the Endangered Species Act proposed by the Trump administration could end federal protection of the three dozen remaining red wolves in North Carolina, wildlife advocates say. jsimmons@charlotteobserver.com

Red wolves living on the Albemarle-Pamlico Peninsula are incredibly secretive. Mostly unseen by humans, these critically endangered animals are the last wild red wolves on the planet.

And if the Trump administration’s new plans to abandon their recovery are approved, the wolves’ howls will likely go silent forever.

One reason North Carolina’s red wolves are rarely viewed is that they’re shot on sight any time poachers get these magnificent animals in their crosshairs. Unfortunately, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, charged with saving these beleaguered creatures, has done little to stop the slaughter.

Now, Trump’s wildlife managers have gone further. They’ve cooked up what amounts to an extinction plan for one of the world’s most endangered animals.

Last year, the Service proposed drastic management plan changes that would allow the killing of red wolves. The proposal, which could be finalized in the next few months, would eliminate protections for all red wolves that wander off federal property and curtail previous goals for range and population size.

That could bring a tragic end to the red wolf’s long history. New evidence shows these animals once ranged from the southeastern United States to Texas, north to parts of Illinois and east into southern Pennsylvania and even southeastern New York.

Today only 24 known wolves remain, clinging to survival in and near the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge. Scientists estimate the species could go extinct in just eight years.

Red wolves are protected under the Endangered Species Act. But if the agency approves the outrageous proposal, the wolves could be killed without consequence by anyone with a hunting license the second wolves step onto private property.

The killers wouldn’t need a reason to shoot. They wouldn’t even have to report the killing.

That’s why my organization, the Center for Biological Diversity, recently launched a lawsuit to force the administration to release its internal communications about the development of the new plan.

The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Raleigh, comes after the Service illegally refused to comply with our 2016 Freedom of Information Act request seeking public records on the plan’s creation.

The public deserves to know what went into the decision-making process for this destructive plan. Refusing to release emails and related public records only feeds our fears that the agency is working in secret to drive the wolves extinct.

Indeed, the proposed plan practically begs the public to kill endangered wolves. Calling for fewer than 15 wolves to be left alive, the Service wants to cut the population in half.

The plan would shrink the wolves’ protected range by 90 percent. Their new home would be reduced from a five-county area to only the wildlife refuge and the Dare County Bombing Range.

It doesn’t need to be this way. North Carolina residents overwhelmingly support red wolves and their recovery. They voiced that support when the Fish and Wildlife Service began taking public comments on its proposed wolf management plan.

Out of 2,923 comments submitted by North Carolinians, 2,898 comments spoke out in favor of red wolf protection and recovery. That’s equal to 99.1 percent. From the current five-county recovery area in eastern North Carolina where the wolves live, 75 out of 95 comments submitted were also pro-wolf.

Gov. Roy Cooper knows the Fish and Wildlife Service’s proposal is unwelcome in this state and showed his support for red wolf recovery. In a comment submitted to the agency, the governor said he directed officials in his administration to work with the Service to continue recovering red wolves.

In fact, only 19 out of 108,124 total comments specifically supported the agency’s plan to eliminate red wolf protections and shrink the recovery area. Of 30 additional comments opposing red wolf recovery, 13 came from a single real estate developer.

It’s clear the Fish and Wildlife Service is more interested in listening to a few deep-pocketed special interests than the people living near North Carolina’s beloved native wildlife. If federal officials don’t reverse course and red wolves go extinct, we’ll all feel the loss.

Perrin de Jong is the North Carolina staff attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity. He lives in Asheville.