Conservationists protest as red wolf numbers fall

North Carolina’s red wolves have dwindled in recent months with only an estimated 45 to 60 animals surviving in the wild, and conservationists say the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is giving up on its 29-year-old program to restore the endangered animal.

The Oregon-based Center for Biological Diversity filed notice March 24 that it intends to sue Fish and Wildlife for mismanaging the Red Wolf Recovery Program in northeastern North Carolina and violating the Endangered Species Act. The agency and the Department of Interior are fighting a similar lawsuit filed in November by the Southern Environmental Law Center, representing three other conservation groups.

Fish and Wildlife has cut its count in half since 2014, when the agency said there were 90 to 110 animals in the world’s only wild population of red wolves, spread over five counties and three national wildlife refuges in the Albemarle-Pamlico peninsula. The new estimate of 45 to 60 was posted in March.

“The rapid decline in red wolf numbers that we’re seeing shows that Fish and Wildlife needs to take action now to save the wolf in the wild,” Collette Adkins, senior attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity, said. “There’s only 45 known red wolves in the wild. That is teetering on the brink of extinction.”

There’s only 45 known red wolves in the wild. That is teetering on the brink of extinction.

Collette Adkins, Center for Biological Diversity

Fish and Wildlife said last June it had stopped releasing wolves born in captivity into the wild, and it would conduct a new study to decide whether to modify or abandon the struggling program. In October, agency officials convened an advisory panel of representatives on different sides of the issue – including the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission and local landowners, who oppose the recovery effort, and conservationists who want to strengthen the program.

‘Atmosphere of distrust’

Pending a decision now expected sometime this summer, Fish and Wildlife also eliminated its red wolf education program, stopped sterilizing coyotes that interbreed with red wolves, and reassigned the employee who had been in charge of the recovery program, Adkins said.

“They should be hiring a recovery coordinator and doing everything they can, instead of dragging their feet,” Adkins said.

An independent study in 2014 blasted Fish and Wildlife for creating “an atmosphere of distrust” among neighboring landowners and for a poor understanding of the red wolf’s declining numbers. The National Wildlife Management Institute report called for improvements in science, management and public relations.

Some landowners have shot wolves, saying they mistook them for coyotes. Hunters blame red wolves for reduced numbers of deer. State wildlife resources officials say the red wolf will never survive as a distinct species and have called for an end to the recovery effort.

Defenders of Wildlife, one of three groups that sued Fish and Wildlife last year, resigned from the red wolf advisory committee to protest what it said was inaction by the agency.

“The team has met once,” Jamie Rappaport Clark, the Defenders of Wildlife president, wrote in a March 19 News & Observer op-ed essay. “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.”

Tom MacKenzie, a Fish and Wildlife spokesman, said the advisory committee met once in person and “is about to hold its third conference call as it works through tasks on its plate.”

Declining to comment on the Center for Biological Diversity’s pending lawsuit, MacKenzie said Fish and Wildlife filed a motion in federal court in March for partial dismissal of the lawsuit involving three other conservation groups.

We are concerned about the decline. We are pressing ahead with our partners on work with our recovery team.

Tom MacKenzie, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

MacKenzie said the new estimate of 45 to 60 surviving red wolves was based on recent observations by Fish and Wildlife scientists.

“We know there are nearly 40 collared wolves (outfitted with GPS transmitters) and wolves with collars malfunctioning,” along with unknown numbers of wolves and wolf pups without tracking collars, he said.

“We are concerned about the decline,” MacKenzie said. “We are pressing ahead with our partners on work with our recovery team. In the meantime, we are managing this experimental population consistent with the rules in place.”

Bruce Siceloff: 919-829-4527, @Road_Worrier