The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposed dramatic changes Monday to its 29-year effort in North Carolina to save endangered red wolves, including dramatically shrinking their range.
An estimated 45 to 60 wolves – down from more than 100 in recent years – now roam five counties of northeastern North Carolina, much of it private land. Under the proposal, they would be limited to federal land in Dare County, in the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge and the Dare County Bombing Range.
The change would take effect by the end of 2017 after further studies and public comment. Conservation groups quickly condemned the proposal Monday.
Wolves on private property would be removed and made part of a captive wolf population, which now numbers about 200 animals. The captive wolves include only 29 breeding pairs, which is not enough to sustain the population, the agency says.
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The service will identify potential new sites to release wolves into the wild by October 2017. Coastal North Carolina is now the only place where they run wild.
The wolf recovery program has been hailed as ground-breaking for saving animals that were declared extinct in the wild in 1980. But wolves in recent years have faced a backlash, including growing numbers shot to death and mounting pressure from landowners to keep them off private property.
Three wolves have died so far this year, all of undetermined causes.
“We need everyone’s help to ensure this species is around for future generations,” Cindy Dohner, the service’s Southeast regional director, told reporters. “We’re on the right road, but we have a great deal of work to do with our state partners, landowners, conservation groups and others.”
The agency announced in 2014 that it would review the program under pressure from irate landowners and the state wildlife commission. Last year the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission asked the federal government to end the program and to capture and remove wolves that were released on private property.
The state commission maintains that the program’s goal of building self-sustaining wolf populations can’t be achieved solely on federal land.
The Southern Environmental Law Center will seek a federal court order, at a previously-scheduled hearing Wednesday in Raleigh, to stop the federal agency from allowing red wolves on private land to be captured or killed.
“Eastern North Carolina supports the world’s only wild population of red wolves, and it may be the last best hope to restore this critically endangered species in the wild,” said Derb Carter, the center’s state director. “The Fish and Wildlife Service plan is tantamount to sentencing red wolves to zoos. The Service is abandoning the red wolf in the wild and abandoning its responsibilities to recover this endangered species.”
Defenders of Wildlife called the proposal “a devastating blow.”
"Never before has the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service so directly turned its back on an endangered species recovery effort. The agency is essentially giving up on the red wolves in the wild today, with vague promises of reintroduction efforts elsewhere, sometime in the future.”
An independent review in 2014 concluded that federal authorities oversold their ability to keep endangered red wolves off private land and recommended a “course correction” for the program. The federal agency was too optimistic in believing wolves would stay on the Alligator River refuge and other federal land, the report said.
In mid-2015 Fish and Wildlife Service suspended new releases of the wolves into the wild in North Carolina as it assessed “the feasibility of recovery for the species.” The service said it would work with private landowners to remove wolves where they are not wanted.
The service said it would also continue to review the program until the end of the year, looking at the genetic purity of the species, interactions with coyotes and whether wolves could be released at other sites.
Although the species is listed as endangered, the wolves in North Carolina are regarded as a “nonessential, experimental” population. That status could allow the service to halt the recovery program here.
Fish and Wildlife ended a seven-year effort to establish red wolves in Great Smoky Mountains National Park in 1998. Too many pups died and, the state commission said, adults weren’t able to stay within the 521,000-acre park.