North Carolina’s dwindling population of wild red wolves continues to face the looming threat of extinction. But conservation groups say, they’re not giving up on the decades-long effort to preserve the endangered species.
In 1987, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service released four pairs of adult red wolves into the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge in eastern North Carolina. The release was part of a new plan to preserve the species from extinction by placing the wolves in a favorable habitat in a five-county recovery area.
For a time, the effort appeared to be succeeding. The Fish & Wildlife Service says the red wolf population in the designated area peaked at around 120 to 130 animals in 2006. The number held fairly steady until about 2012.
But over the past several years, the state’s red wolf population has declined sharply. Attorney Ramona McGee with the Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC) blames the decline on "mismanagement" and "neglect" by the Fish & Wildlife Service in its approach to the recovery program. She cites the federal agency's decision to stop releasing red wolves into the recovery area in 2015.
The Fish & Wildlife Service also halted the sterilization of coyotes in the eastern North Carolina region. That’s significant because coyotes can compete with wolves for habitat, or even mate with red wolves, creating hybrid animals.
Disease and collisions with cars have claimed some red wolves, while others have died of gunshot wounds. At 96 of the animals were fatally shot over about three decades, according to the Associated Press. Some were likely mistaken by hunters for coyotes. A federal judge in 2014 banned nighttime hunting of coyotes in the eastern North Carolina recovery area.
The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service website says about 40 red wolves now remain in the recovery area. A report by The Guardian in March said the number was down to around 30.
In November, a federal judge ruled that the Wildlife Service had violated the U.S. Endangered Species Act through changes in the agency’s red wolf management policies. The judge also permanently prohibited landowners in the eastern North Carolina recovery area from capturing or killing red wolves that do not pose a threat.
In the wake of that ruling, environmental groups are not giving up their efforts on behalf of the endangered wolves. "We are continuing to monitor and try to push the agency to go back and actually implement those measures that we all know will save the red wolf," says the SELC's McGee.
In an email, a spokesman for the Fish & Wildlife Service said he is “not able to comment on any possible upcoming changes” in the Red Wolf Recovery Program.
There are also at least 200 red wolves currently in captive breeding programs.