The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said Tuesday it will suspend new releases of rare red wolves into the wild in North Carolina as it assesses “the feasibility of recovery for the species.”
None of the estimated 50 to 75 wolves that now roam a five-county area on the coast will be removed, said Cindy Dohner, the service’s Southeast regional director.
But, she added, “the service will work with private landowners that have wolves on their property and want them removed.” Last week the service said it had granted permission for a landowner in Hyde County to shoot a wolf on his property.
The service will continue to review the program until the end of the year. It will look at the aspects including the genetic purity of the species, interactions with coyotes and whether wolves could be released at other sites.
Fish and Wildlife could decide to end the North Carolina program, which first released wolves on the Albemarle Peninsula in 1987. It has been hailed as ground-breaking for saving animals that were declared extinct in the wild in 1980.
Dohner told reporters that allowing the wolves to go extinct in the wild again is “one of many possibilities.”
Tuesday’s announcement comes more than a year after the service said it would review the program under mounting pressure from irate landowners and the state wildlife commission.
In January, 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 commission’s position is it can’t meet” the program’s goals of establishing selfsustaining wolf populations solely on federal land, commission director Gordon Myers said Tuesday.
The Southern Environmental Law Center said the service will “significantly scale back” the program and could end it.
Law center attorney Sierra Weaver said service’s action “will undermine the continuing recovery of the red wolf and could lead to the unprecedented action by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service to cause the extinction of a species in the wild.”
Federal authorities oversold their ability to keep endangered red wolves off private land, an independent review of the program said last November in a critical report that recommended a “course correction” for the program.
The federal agency was too optimistic in believing wolves would stay on the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge and other federal land, the report said. They prefer hunting prey on surrounding farms, it said.
Federal biologists also have struggled to keep wolves from breeding with coyotes. A growing number of gunshot deaths, meanwhile, threaten the wolves’ ability to reproduce. Eight wolves in all have died, from all causes, this year.
Dohner said in a statement Tuesday that “there were misunderstandings, particularly about the nonessential, experimental population, and we did not always meet the expectations we set.”
Until the end of the year, wolves will be managed according to rules put in place in 1995 that regulated the North Carolina wolves as a “nonessential, experimental” population under the Endangered Species Act.
The “nonessential” status allows the service to halt the 28-year-old experiment to bring wolves back to the wilds of North Carolina’s coast.
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.