WASHINGTON (CN) – The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s proposed changes to the experimental population of red wolves are based on “many alarming misinterpretations” of a population analysis, wolf advocates claim. The agency’s advance notice of proposed rulemaking published Tuesday evolves from a troubled history of balancing the needs of the most endangered canid in the world against the interests of landowners who do not want the wolves on their land.
“Today’s announcement is the federal government’s latest statement of intent to kill red wolf recovery in the wild, while its actions have been doing exactly that for close to three years now. There is simply no need to take the actions they’re suggesting for the sake of red wolf conservation. The need stems entirely from a lack of political will and an apparent desire to walk away from one of the most successful endangered species recovery programs in U.S. history,” Sierra B. Weaver, Senior Attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center said. The SELC filed suit against the service last September on behalf of the Animal Welfare Institute, Defenders of Wildlife and the Red Wolf Coalition after the agency announced its plan to remove red wolves from the wild. These and other groups have faced off against the USFWS in a complicated struggle to save the rare wolves.
The red wolf, which once thrived from Texas and Louisiana through the Ohio River Valley and up the Atlantic coast, was decimated by aggressive predator control programs carried out by federal, state and individual efforts such that only a very few wild animals survived in Texas and Louisiana by the mid 1970s. They were listed as “threatened with extinction” under the Endangered Species Preservation Act in 1967, and then listed as an endangered species under the Endangered Species Act when it was enacted in 1973. In 1975, the agency decided that the only way to save the wolves was to capture the remaining wild animals and begin a captive-breeding program, at which point they became extinct in the wild.
In 1986, a “nonessential experimental population” (NEP) was established in North Carolina. The term “nonessential” means the population is not considered to be essential for the continued existence of the species, according to the agency. Conservation measures included fitting the wolves with monitoring collars, vaccinations, public education, capture and relocation of wolves that strayed onto private land, and a controversial move to introduce sterile coyotes into the area to prevent hybridization. At its height, the NEP boasted 110 wolves in the wild, but now the wild wolves number between 30 and 50.
“As a participant in the Red Wolf Species Survival Plan, the Wolf Conservation Center has been a part of this effort for the past 13 years in giving the rare species a second chance by preventing extinction through public education, research, captive breeding and supporting the North Carolina Alligator River reintroduction project by producing the wolves for reintroduction. No species should have to face extinction at the hands of humanity, much less twice,” Maggie Howell, Wolf Conservation Center’s executive director said.
Private land owners began pushing back against the presence of the wolves, including by increasing gunshot deaths. In 2012, North Carolina authorized night hunting of coyotes, which are of similar size and appearance to red wolves, especially at night. A lawsuit brought by the Red Wolf Coalition against the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission (NCWRC) resulted in an injunction stopping the night hunts in May 2014. The following month, the NCWRC denied the USFWS’ requests to trap and sterilize coyotes, and asked the service to end the recovery program. The agency commissioned an independent review of the program by the Wildlife Management Institute in September 2014.
The current advance notice of proposed rulemaking is part of a process that is supposed to produce a new recovery plan by October 2018, but wolf advocates claim it relies on assessments of the NEP program that have been misinterpreted, according to team members who prepared the population viability analysis (PVA) referenced in the notice. The “decision on the future of the Red Wolf Recovery Program included many alarming misinterpretations of the PVA,” the team members said in a letter to the agency.
When asked about this, Philip Kloer, a public affairs specialist with the USFWS, shared a written response by their Southwest Regional Director Cindy Dohner, in which the agency disagreed that they had misinterpreted the PVA data, but had considered it with other research and concluded that the NEP success rate needed to be higher, and that securing the captive population was essential. “It is our position that without a completely secured captive breeding population, we would not be able to have an NEP anywhere else within the red wolf’s historical range,” she wrote.
“The science shows that red wolves can be saved, but, with fewer than 50 left in the wild, the agency must take definitive action to ensure recovery,” said Collette Adkins, a biologist and senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity. “The agency’s proposal to pull red wolves from the wild would only make the wild population more vulnerable. Instead, the agency needs to find additional reintroduction sites and help landowners coexist with wolves that depend on private lands surrounding the refuges.”
Other advocates add that during this extended review period, the agency has fallen down in its efforts to protect the existing NEP. The Defenders of Wildlife’s representative Ben Prater resigned from a recovery team the service initiated in September 2015. The Defenders noted in the resignation letter that the service had not taken steps to reduce gunshot deaths or establish other recovery sites, had not begun its mandated five-year review, had eliminated the recovery coordinator position and reduced staff, and had issued kill permits for non-problem wolves.
“Red wolf recovery should be a matter of pride and priority for our nation. The service’s misinterpretation of science, however, represents another blow to the world’s most endangered wolf species,” WCC’s Howell said.