The US will release more endangered red wolves into the wild

The US government will settle a dispute with conservation groups and commit to releasing more endangered red wolves into the North Carolina wild, where nearly three dozen of the canine species are believed to still roam free.

The conservation groups sued the US Fish and Wildlife Service in 2020 after it was shut down Release of captive bred wolves. Eastern North Carolina is the only place on earth where they roam wild outside of zoos and wildlife sanctuaries.

A female red wolf emerges from her den where she houses newborn pups at the Museum of Life and Science in Durham, North Carolina, May 13, 2019.
A female red wolf emerges from her den where she houses newborn pups at the Museum of Life and Science in Durham, North Carolina, May 13, 2019.

AP Photo/Gerry Broome, file

The Southern Environmental Law Center filed the lawsuit on behalf of the Red Wolf Coalition, Defenders of Wildlife and the Animal Welfare Institute. A settlement agreement was reached on Wednesday, according to documents filed with the US District Court in North Carolina.

“North Carolina has been home to one of the most successful predator reintroductions in the world for 25 years,” Ramona McGee, attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center, said in a statement. “This agreement puts us on track to restore the Red Wolf to its rightful place as a celebrated success story.”

Red wolves once roamed much of the eastern United States, but were nearly wiped out through trapping, hunting, and habitat loss before being reintroduced to North Carolina in 1987. Their distribution area is limited to five counties in North Carolina. Scientists at zoos and other institutions have kept a population of nearly 300 wolves in captivity in recent years.

Following the reintroduction of red wolves, the state’s wild population grew to over 100 and remained stable through 2012.

The number of wolves was increased by the release of captive-born pups and the sterilization of coyotes competing for space. However, these approaches were halted in 2015 due to pressure from conservative politicians and landowners who found wolves a nuisance.

Red wolves live in an area dominated by farms and private properties. At least 96 red wolves have died from gunshot wounds over the decades.

Some landowners said the wolves made fighting coyotes more difficult. A federal judge in 2014 banned hunting coyotes in red wolf territory at night because the canines can be easily confused.

When conservation groups filed their lawsuit in 2020, they said there could only be seven red wolves alive in the wild. The groups argued that federal wildlife agencies broke the law Endangered Species Act through actions that included halting the release of captive-bred wolves in 2015.

The lawsuit led a federal judge in 2021 to order the Fish and Wildlife Service to come up with a plan to increase the number of feral wolves while the lawsuit was pending.

US District Judge Terrence Boyle’s ruling, noting that conservation groups were likely to succeed, while noting that “extinction is a very real possibility.”

Under the terms of the settlement agreement, the Fish and Wildlife Service will develop and publish plans to release red wolves for a period of eight years. The plans will include “metrics that can be used to measure performance.”

The agency wrote that it “recognises the importance of the red wolf population in eastern North Carolina” and is committed to operating in a manner consistent with the Endangered Species Act.

In June, the Fish and Wildlife Service said there were 16 known or ringed red wolves living in the wild, while the total wild population is estimated at 32 to 34. There were 278 red wolves in the captive population.

Johanna Hamburger, a senior advocate at the Animal Welfare Institute, said in a statement Wednesday that the agreement “saves wild red wolves from extinction.”

“When we filed this lawsuit, scientists warned that red wolves could be extinct in the wild by 2024 if the (Fish and Wildlife Service) continued down this path,” she said.

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