Red wolf program under federal scrutiny

Local focus groups will convene this week as part of a review that could end a decades-old experiment to restore endangered red wolves on North Carolina’s coast.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said in June that it would review the program, which returned wolves to the Albemarle peninsula in 1987. Between 90 and 110 wolves roam a five-county area.

The review comes on the heels of a lawsuit that pitted the state wildlife commission against wolf advocates. It also follows years of claims by local landowners that wolves are decimating deer herds.

Against that backdrop, advocates say the federal review appears stacked against the wolves.

Fish and Wildlife gave short public notice, on Aug. 29, of a review a consultant is to complete by Oct. 10. Advocates say the two local sessions, to be held Wednesday and Thursday, and an online survey seem intended to solicit complaints.

The “minimal opportunity for public involvement does not comply with the law and does not take seriously the FWS’s responsibilities for preventing the extinction of the red wolf in the wild,” the Southern Environmental Law Center wrote the agency last week.

Fish and Wildlife is two years overdue in revisiting the red wolf’s endangered status, the law center notes. That process has an extensive public-participation process and is required by law every five years.

“If the agency was really interested in applying the best science, they would follow the Endangered Species Act,” said attorney Sierra Weaver.

The law center represents three groups that successfully sued the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission last year. A federal judge ruled against the commission in May, halting the shooting of coyotes – which look like wolves – in wolf territory because of growing wolf fatalities.

A month later, Wildlife Resources asked the federal agency to review the restoration program. The commission said it wants “sound science” to prevail but will not take a position on the review.

Leopoldo Miranda, an assistant regional director, said Fish and Wildlife isn’t required to seek any public comment for the review but did because of local interest. The wolf program, he added, “must have local support.”

“We live in a political system, so those pressures definitely push an agency like ours to take action,” he said. “But if we decide to modify or terminate the program, it will be based on the science.”

Miranda called the North Carolina program extremely successful. The first attempt at capturing animals in the wild to save the species, it laid the foundation for saving other species on the brink of extinction such as the California condor.

But conditions have changed on the Albemarle peninsula since the late 1980s, he said.

Rising sea level is expected to swamp much of the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge, where the program is based, within a few decades. And while the refuge was picked in part because it had no coyotes to breed with wolves, coyotes have now spread statewide.

North Carolina’s wolves are listed as an “experimental” and “non-essential” population. That means Fish and Wildlife could simply end the restoration effort, as it ended a similar program in Great Smoky Mountains National Park in 1998.

Among the deciding factors in the Smokies, as on the Albemarle peninsula, were complaints of wolves wandering off federal land.

“When (federal officials) first came with the program, they said they would be on their land only. Anybody with any common sense would know they couldn’t enforce that,” said Charles Sears, a Hyde County landowner 4 miles from the Alligator River refuge.

Sears said he could once spot 25 or more deer a day from any of the stands on his 250 acres. Now he might see a deer or two, a loss he blames on wolves and wolf-coyote hybrids.

“They have cross-bred so much you can’t tell what’s what,” he said.

Evin Stanford, deer biologist for the state commission, said it’s unknown whether wolves hurt deer numbers. “From a deer management perspective, it’s hard for us to quantify the impact of the red wolf versus the coyote or diseases,” he said.