The red wolf is distinct, don’t let it become extinct

Den cam shows birth of rare red wolf pups

Red wolf den camera shows birth of three pups on April 20, 2018 the the Museum of Life and Science in Durham.
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Red wolf den camera shows birth of three pups on April 20, 2018 the the Museum of Life and Science in Durham.

For years, the red wolf recovery effort in North Carolina has been plagued by scientific controversy.

With its genetic makeup the subject of disagreement, it has been suggested that the red wolf is not a real species and therefore undeserving of protection under the Endangered Species Act. This polarizing dispute has divided the scientific community, emboldened an anti-wolf minority and ultimately diverted attention from the continuing deterioration of the red wolf program in North Carolina.

Fortunately, that debate was recently laid to rest. In March, the National Academy of Sciences published a report, indicating that the red wolf is in fact a unique, distinct species, different from both the gray wolf and coyote. Because the study was undertaken at the behest of the U.S. Congress, a panel of scientists thoroughly examined all lines of evidence and arrived at a “very clear conclusion” that has finally and definitively settled the matter.

For those struggling to save the species, the report is both vindicating and timely. With the red wolf population continuing to decline in North Carolina, we can now wholly focus on the most pressing challenges facing the species—namely, agency inaction and illegal management.

For centuries, the red wolf’s story has been one colored by persecution and intolerance. From the moment European settlers landed on these shores, red wolves were shot, poisoned and hunted down with ruthless efficiency. This slaughter ultimately culminated in the disappearance of the red wolf throughout 99.7% of its range. North Carolina’s red wolf recovery area, which is situated on the Albemarle Peninsula, represents the last precious holdout for a species that is at once one of the world’s rarest and most politically besieged.

Tragically, our very own state wildlife agency has proven an obstacle to red wolf recovery. Although the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission once offered the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) its cooperation and assistance in conserving the red wolf, the Commission has since succumbed to political pressure and rescinded its support. In fact, in 2015, the Commission went so far as to formally demand that FWS terminate the red wolf program and declare the species extinct in the wild. Rather than challenging these ultimatums, FWS has followed our state’s lead and systematically and illegally dismantled the red wolf program over the past five years.

Where there were once 150 animals, fewer than 30 remain. To make matters worse, FWS recently proposed shrinking the red wolf recovery area by about 90% and allowing all private landowners to shoot any critically endangered red wolf that steps onto their property. If enacted, this proposal would likely result in the extinction of the world’s rarest canine and the disappearance of the red wolf throughout the entirety of its Southern range.

As proud North Carolinians, this sobering fact should inspire us to act.

Recognizing that the “red wolf is part of the cultural and economic fabric of our state,” in July of 2018 Governor Roy Cooper urged FWS to recommit to the recovery effort and instructed departments under his direction to support the program. Thousands of North Carolinians also partook in the latest public comment period, which nationally generated 108,000 comments, 99.9% of which were opposed to FWS’ proposal.

We need to follow the Governor’s lead and once more encourage FWS to recommit to the program. By FWS’ own admission, the program was once “remarkably successful,” and can be so again. The red wolf has a home in North Carolina, among the pines and wetlands of the coast—but only if FWS reimplements essential management tools, reintroduces captive wolves, and addresses the wave of poaching that has crippled the population. We must also hold the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission accountable and demand its leaders develop a conservation plan for the species and work with FWS to recover the red wolf.

We’ve already failed the ivory-billed woodpecker, passenger pigeon and eastern cougar and our ecosystems and culture are all the poorer for it. Let’s not further degrade our natural heritage by letting the red wolf silently disappear, too.

Contact the director of the NC Wildlife Resources Commission, Gordon Myers, as well as FWS Regional Director, Leo Miranda, encouraging them to do right by the red wolf.

Christian Hunt works for Defenders of Wildlife, a national conservation organization.