North Carolina Fish and Wildlife Service violated mandate to preserve dwindling red wolf population, says federal judge

The critically endangered American red wolf might have been saved from extinction on Monday.

In a scathing court decision, a federal judge in North Carolina ripped the Interior Department’s management of the last red wolf population in the wild Monday, saying that an agency sworn to uphold a congressional mandate to preserve the animals violated it over and over, and even gave private landowners the right to shoot and kill them.

Chief Judge Terrence Boyle reminded the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which gave the authorization, of its own statement in 1999. “Wildlife are not the property of landowners but belong to the public and are managed by state and federal governments for the public good,” he wrote.

Boyle ruled that a temporary injunction issued against Fish and Wildlife’s shoot-to-kill authorization in 2016 is now permanent. The agency must prove a wolf is a threat to humans or livestock before it can make a decision to take its life.

Deciding in favour of the Red Wolf Coalition, Defenders of Wildlife and the Animal Welfare Institute — conservation groups that sued Fish and Wildlife — Boyle said the agency violated a rule passed by Congress to resurrect them, protect them, conserve the species and determine the impact of allowing people to slaughter the few that remain in and around the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge in North Carolina.

Red wolves once roamed the entire southeastern United States before government-sanctioned hunting programs all but eliminated them. In the late 1970s, a few wolves were captured and bred in zoos. An experimental population was released into the North Carolina refuge.

In what was hailed as a biological success, two breeding pairs expanded to nearly 140 in the early 2000s.

In this June 13, 2017 file photo, the parents of a 7-week old red wolf pup keep an eye on their offspring at the Museum of Life and Science in Durham, N.C. Conservationists told a judge Wednesday, Oct. 17, 2018, that an imminent federal plan to shrink the territory of the only wild red wolves would hasten the animal’s extinction. Lawyers for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, however, countered that new rules for the red wolf program, set to be finalized next month, mean that the conservationists’ current arguments are moot.

But in 2012, as a few private landowners and state wildlife officials put pressure on the service to end the program in North Carolina, the population went into a startling decline.

“Notably… the red wolf population saw a drastic decrease from 2013 to 2015” with only 50 wolves remaining, Boyle wrote. “The population decrease coincides with… making internal revisions to its guidelines and management policies in response at least in part to mounting public pressure against red wolf recovery efforts.”

The court’s decision stands to significantly alter the Fish and Wildlife Service’s most recent plan to manage the wolves, announced in June. That plan, if approved, would allow North Carolina landowners to kill any wolf that stepped onto their property.

Only 35 wolves remain in the five-county area where they are managed. At the time of the June announcement, Leopoldo Miranda, assistant director for ecological services in the agency’s Southeast region, said the goal would be to intensively manage a small population of 10 to 15 red wolves at the refuge.

The hope, Miranda said, would be to preserve their genetic value and wild behaviours so that red wolves could be released into an environment more friendly than eastern North Carolina.

Fish and Wildlife spokesman Philip Kloer said the agency does not comment on matters in litigation.

Conservation groups praised the court’s decision while denouncing the federal government.

“The District Court’s ruling today makes it clear that [Fish and Wildlife’s] recent management decisions have failed to protect the red wolf population,” said Johanna Hamburger, wildlife attorney for the Animal Welfare Institute. If Fish and Wildlife “continues to ignore the recovery needs of the red wolf, these animals may once again be extinct in the wild by 2024. The court has ruled that this is unacceptable.”

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