Red wolf debacle shows US Fish and Wildlife Service missing spine

A male red wolf enjoys a feeding in its habitat at the Museum of Life and Science in Durham.
A male red wolf enjoys a feeding in its habitat at the Museum of Life and Science in Durham. AP

The meme spreading around social media this week of President Barack Obama defiantly standing on a doorstep while holding a bald eagle is pretty awesome, but for those of us in the wildlife conservation world, it is also rather ironic, given the way the Obama administration has been retreating from endangered species conservation in recent years.

Not only has it backpedaled sharply away from protecting any form of gray wolf, it also has put forth what many conservation biologists see as an obscene interpretation of the Endangered Species Act, claiming that a species needs to be restored only to some fraction of its historic range in order to qualify as recovered. Under this interpretation, neither bald eagles nor gray wolves would ever have been the focus of conservation efforts in the lower 48 states, since both species were secure in Alaska.

Now the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is busy working hard to make sure the red wolf program in North Carolina goes away, too, even though the wild red wolf population has dwindled to below 100 animals (compare that with 1,600 wild giant pandas and 4,500 wild snow leopards). After commissioning a 171-page program review from the Wildlife Management Institute last year, this week the agency announced its decision to dial down the red wolf reintroduction effort until yet another review can be conducted. The agency also quietly eliminated the position of the red wolf recovery coordinator. All the signs point toward a U.S. FWS that lacks the guts or the enthusiasm to fight any more for the sake of controversial species.

Yet the fact is that North Carolina residents and Americans generally support conserving wolves and other endangered animals, an inconvenient truth that the U.S. FWS seems to be actively trying to suppress. As part of the WMI review, the agency solicited public comments last fall. Over 120,000 pro-red-wolf comments were submitted, as counted by a number of prominent wildlife conservation nonprofits. But the U.S. FWS acknowledged that it “lost” a substantial number of these emails, and WMI reported only 43,000 comments received (and it still didn’t admit how many of those comments supported the wolf program). This fiasco happened after it came to light that the person WMI hired to conduct the review had been forced to resign the same year from the Kentucky Department of Natural Resources for major ethical violations.

The broader public supports standing up for the wolves, but that doesn’t seem to be a concern of state or federal agencies as long as there are a few landowners in Eastern North Carolina agitating to end the program. Letting a small number of vocal opponents (led by a wealthy real estate developer) dictate federal endangered species policy sets the worst possible precedent for the United States government (kind of like letting Cliven Bundy set his own rangeland policy out in Nevada), and it contradicts the once-proud history of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Would the bald eagle have ever recovered if the government had just bowed to the demands of the DDT manufacturers? Would the nesting birds at Pelican Island have been saved if Teddy Roosevelt had fretted about what the local plume hunters were going to think about his plans for our first national wildlife refuge?

The red wolf is a challenging species to recover. But the United States is the most powerful and innovative nation-state in the history of the world, and it didn’t use to be our practice to just roll over when the going got tough. We can afford to rise up to the social, financial and technical hurdles associated with bringing back the red wolf, even in the face of substantial interference from the wolf’s adaptable and fecund sister species, the coyote. By doing so, we will restore much-needed ecological balance to our eastern forests, which in many areas are suffering great damage from overabundant deer and raccoon populations.

President Obama may well deserve a bald eagle for his recent wins on other policy fronts. In order to earn his picture with a red wolf, though, he’s going to have to inject a spine back into the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Ron Sutherland, Ph.D., of Durham is a conservation scientist for the Wildlands Network.