Undermining the red wolf’s recovery in North Carolina

A red wolf in a fenced enclosure in the alligator River National Wildlife Refuge in 2010
A red wolf in a fenced enclosure in the alligator River National Wildlife Refuge in 2010 JOHN D. SIMMONS - jsimmons@charl

Defenders of Wildlife have resigned from the Red Wolf Recovery Team in North Carolina because, though it ostensibly was assembled to make recommendations for red wolf conservation and recovery, it has not been organized and directed to have any chance of achieving this important goal.

Three decades ago, red wolves returned to North Carolina for the first time in generations. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service captured the last remaining red wolves in the wild, and 14 individuals formed the foundation of a captive breeding program. From the initial release of captive-bred red wolves on Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge until very recently, the Red Wolf Recovery Program has made steady progress: The population in the wild had grown to around 110 and helped set an example for carnivore restoration. In recent years, however, the red wolf program has faced serious challenges. The influx of coyotes has raised concerns about hybridization, and efforts to control coyotes have often resulted in red wolves getting shot, victims of mistaken identity.

In 2012, no fewer than 10 red wolves died from gunshots after the state of North Carolina authorized night hunting of coyotes in red wolf habitat. While litigation by Defenders of Wildlife and other conservation organizations ultimately led to the end of coyote night hunting, daytime hunting is still allowed, and red wolves are still being shot.

Unfortunately, instead of working with private landowners to provide the tools they need to coexist with red wolves and stepping up management practices like coyote sterilization, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has withdrawn its proactive support of red wolf recovery. In 2015, the service stopped releasing captive red wolves into the wild. It has eliminated the full-time red wolf coordinator position at the refuge. It has all but abandoned its coyote sterilization program and even issued permits to landowners allowing them to shoot red wolves on their properties with little attempt at trying to remove them.

Just last year, the service gave a landowner a lethal control permit, and a breeding female red wolf was shot. This was a huge loss for the species, as it is believed that now only about a dozen breeding-age female red wolves remain in the wild.

When our group was invited to join the Red Wolf Recovery Team in September, we welcomed the opportunity to collaborate with the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, wildlife researchers and other stakeholders. We relied on the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s own statements that the team was intended to guide future red wolf conservation efforts with the ultimate goal of recovery in the wild. But it soon became clear that the team has no real chance of success.

The team has met once. The service has not affirmed its commitment to red wolf recovery in North Carolina and has not tasked the team with creating a scientifically based plan for achieving red wolf recovery. In fact, it has recently become clear that the team is not meant to make any attempt to reach a consensus on recovery and will simply evaluate alternative approaches to the recovery program, including its termination. That is not what a species recovery team does.

The failure of this team to guide future red wolf recovery efforts is yet another blow to a species that has encountered setback after setback. Just recently a landowner who is a member of the Red Wolf Recovery Team trapped a red wolf and held it for at least a day, while demanding a permit allowing him to kill wolves on his property. This situation is indicative of why the “recovery” team has little chance of achieving its original purported goals.

The plight of the red wolf isn’t just a North Carolina or Southeast wildlife issue, and it’s not just a story about mismanagement. It’s a story about our nation’s commitment to protecting endangered species in a time of increasing opposition to federal action. It’s a story that has serious implications for imperiled species conservation across the United States. The red wolf’s story needs to be heard, and its time is running out.

Jamie Rappaport Clark is president and CEO of Defenders of Wildlife.