Federal authorities oversold their ability to keep endangered red wolves off private land, a consultant said Thursday in a critical report that recommends a “course correction” for the program.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, amid complaints from property owners, commissioned the review of its effort to restore wolves to North Carolina’s wild.
The service expects to decide early next year whether to change or end the program.
Wolves were first released in 1987 in the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge on the northeastern coast. About 90 to 110 now roam 1.7 million acres, much of it privately owned, in five counties.
Some landowners complain that wolves are decimating deer. A temporary ban this year on shooting of coyotes, which breed with wolves and are regarded as nuisances, inflamed passions.
The Fish and Wildlife Service was too optimistic in believing wolves would stay on the Alligator refuge and other federal land, says the report by the Wildlife Management Institute. They prefer hunting prey on surrounding farms, it says.
The wildlife service broke its own rules that say wandering wolves would be returned to federal land if landowners complain, the report says. The agency can’t document that all property owners agreed to have wolves released on their land, it says.
“It’s clear to us that wolves don’t recognize landowner boundaries,” WMI President Steve Williams told reporters Thursday. “The idea that wolves would stay on federal land doesn’t makes sense and isn’t what’s happening today.”
Fish and Wildlife has stopped releasing wolves on private land, assistant regional director Leo Miranda said.
Miranda said the agency hasn’t decided what to do with the program. “There are some serious things in there that we need to take a look at,” he said of the report.
The report found that the wolf program had too little oversight by regional Fish and Wildlife officials and didn’t do enough to engage the public. It also left unanswered the degree to which wolves and coyotes have interbred.
Red wolves were declared extinct in the wild in 1980. The North Carolina program has been hailed as a national success in proving that the rarest of animals can recover.
But because the wolves on the Albemarle Peninsula are listed as an “experimental” population, the Fish and Wildlife Service can simply end the North Carolina program.
The service canceled a similar program in Great Smoky Mountains National Park after seven years in 1998, in part because wolves strayed off federal land.
Kim Wheeler, executive director of the Red Wolf Coalition in Tyrrell County, said the report left her feeling uncertain about the program’s future.
“I just hope the Fish and Wildlife Service continues their commitment to this animal. I hope they hold up their end of the bargain,” she said. “People are important, but I hope they remember that they have an obligation to that animal.”
The 43,000 public comments emailed to the Fish and Wildlife Service ranged from strong support to strong opposition to the program.
A separate online survey included in the WMI report found that 54 percent of respondents in wolf territory called the program successful, compared with 63 percent from elsewhere in the state.
Wildlife advocates, including the Red Wolf Coalition, sued the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission in 2013 to halt coyote shooting in the five counties wolves occupy. The two species look similar, and gunshot deaths of wolves were rising.
A month after a judge temporarily stopped the coyote shooting in May, the wildlife commission asked for the federal review of the wolf program. The commission complained that wolves were thriving on private farmland, not within federal refuges.
The commission’s executive director, Gordon Myers, couldn’t be reached Thursday. In a statement, Myers praised the “focused and deliberative action the Service” is taking on the wolf program and collaboration between the two agencies.
Total wolf deaths, and gunshots, have dropped with the coyote-shooting ban in place. Three wolves have died this year of confirmed or suspected gunshots, compared with nine, eight and seven the previous three years.
A federal judge last week approved a compromise reached by wildlife advocates and the wildlife commission. That solution bans night hunting of coyotes in five counties and requires special permits for daylight hunts.