Judge sides with conservationists fighting to protect red wolves in NC

Red wolves roams in a fenced area at the Red Wolf Education Center in Columbia, NC February 10, 2014. They are part of a captive breeding program at the coalition.
Red wolves roams in a fenced area at the Red Wolf Education Center in Columbia, NC February 10, 2014. They are part of a captive breeding program at the coalition. jhknight@newsobserver.com

U.S. District Judge Terrence Boyle has temporarily restricted the federal government’s ability to remove red wolves from private property in North Carolina in a ruling issued Thursday that conservationists are cheering.

In his order for a temporary injunction, Boyle said the government had failed to protect the wild red wolves that roam a five-county area in northeastern North Carolina. The order stops wildlife officials from removing red wolves from private property unless they can show the animals are threatening humans, pets or livestock. Boyle also wrote that from the record developed in court so far, the conservation groups appeared likely to be the victors in their challenge of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s proposed changes in managing the wolves.

“Following reintroduction, the wild red wolf population in the red wolf recovery area grew steadily, with a peak population of an estimated 130 red wolves in 2006 and as many as twenty breeding pairs in a given year,” Boyle wrote in the order. “In November 2013, there were an estimated 100 red wolves in the wild with an estimated eight breeding pairs. ...In March 2016, defendants estimated there to be only 45-60 red wolves in the wild. Such rapid population decline has been described as a catastrophic indicator that the wild red wolf population is in extreme danger of extinction.”

Federal officials have proposed that beginning next year the wolves’ territory should be reduced to a federal wildlife refuge and adjacent land in Dare County, rather than the five-county territory where they currently are protected. Wildlife officials have proposed capturing and removing the wolves that stray beyond the refuge and Dare County.

Boyle’s ruling comes nearly two weeks after the Southern Environmental Law Center argued its case on behalf of the Defenders of Wildlife, the Animal Welfare Institute and the Red Wolf Coalition.

The groups argued that the federal agency had failed to protect the world’s only wild population of red wolves by authorizing private landowners to kill them on their land. Federal wildlife workers also have been capturing wolves, according to the groups, and sometimes holding them for weeks or months before releasing them into unfamiliar territory where they are not with their mates and pack.

“This is a great day for red wolves and for anyone who loves nature in eastern North Carolina,” said Sierra Weaver, senior attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center. “The court was clear that it’s the Fish and Wildlife Service’s job to conserve this endangered species, not drive it to extinction. The agency cannot simply abandon that responsibility.”

The red wolf, a critically endangered species once populous throughout the Southeast, was reintroduced into the wilds of North Carolina in 1987. The bushy-tailed predator that roamed forests, swamps and coastal prairies was thought to be extinct in the wild by 1980.

But before the population was totally eliminated, biologists and others located and captured as many as possible and began a breeding program in captivity that would eventually lead to the reintroduction of the red wolf into its once native habitat.

The federal government has argued that the 200 or so red wolves living in captivity justify the wild wolves’ classification as a “nonessential” population.

Boyle has sided with environmentalists in previous court rulings by banning nighttime coyote hunting in the five-county area. Conservationists say red wolves can easily be mistaken for coyotes by hunters.

Anne Blythe: 919-836-4948, @AnneBlythe1