The U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina issued a preliminary injunction that orders the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to stop capturing and killing—and authorizing private landowners to capture and kill—members of the rapidly dwindling population of wild red wolves. On behalf of Defenders of Wildlife, the Animal Welfare Institute and the Red Wolf Coalition, the Southern Environmental Law Center argued in a court hearing on September 14 that a preliminary injunction was needed to stop the agency from harming these native wolves in the wild.
Earlier that week, the agency had announced its proposal to remove most members of the world’s only wild population of red wolves that now roam a five-county area in northeastern North Carolina and to put them into captivity—thus abandoning all protective efforts, except in one refuge where one pack lives and in a bombing range.
“The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is responsible for the protection of endangered wildlife and the habitats where they live, but the agency seems to have red wolves on a path towards extinction in the wild and captivity,” said Sierra Weaver, senior attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center who represents the conservation groups before the court. “Without this court order, there wasn’t going to be any wild population left for the court and the American public to save. We’re grateful to the court for stepping in and giving the wild red wolves a chance to survive when the agency would not.”
The groups brought the federal agency to court for its failure to protect the world’s only wild population of red wolves—previously estimated to be over 100 animals. Court filings detail a population decline of 50 percent over the course of two years, as well as the agency’s ongoing actions and inactions that imperiled the survival and recovery of the species in the wild. Previously, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service stopped key conservation actions and began authorizing private landowners to kill red wolves on their land. It also has been capturing wolves throughout the five-county red wolf recovery area in North Carolina and holding them for weeks or months before releasing them into unfamiliar territory, separated from their mates and pack.
“This species is running out of time. We have a short window to put red wolves back on a path to recovery or we will lose the last wild population in America,” said Jason Rylander, senior attorney for Defenders of Wildlife. “The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service needs to get its red wolf program back on track and start taking actions that will help, not hinder, recovery.”
A strong majority of North Carolinians support the effort to recover the native red wolf, according to a new poll conducted by Tulchin Research. The new poll revealed that 73 percent of North Carolinians said they support red wolf recovery. The survey also found that over 80 percent of registered voters throughout North Carolina believe the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service should make every effort to help the endangered red wolf population recover and prevent its extinction.
“We are pleased the court recognized that allowing the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service to issue lethal and non-lethal permits for the removal of red wolves from the wild, was a pathway to extinction, not recovery,” said Red Wolf Coalition executive director Kim Wheeler.
As one example of FWS’s failure to protect red wolves, the groups cite its 2015 authorization of a private landowner to kill a breeding female that was exhibiting denning behavior, after minimal efforts by the agency to save the animal. The private landowner shot and killed the red wolf in June 2015, even though the wolf had not caused any problems. Under the Endangered Species Act, it is unlawful for anyone to “take” (i.e., harass, harm or kill) a red wolf, except in limited circumstances. Federal regulations authorize FWS to issue permits to take red wolves on private property after a property owner requests that wolves be removed from their property and the agency abandons efforts to capture them. For twenty years FWS only allowed the taking of “problem wolves”—that is, those that threatened human safety or property—yet it recently expanded its activities to capture and in some cases allow private landowners to kill any wolves that enter private land.
The FWS announced in June 2015 that it would suspend the reintroduction of red wolves into eastern North Carolina. The agency also stopped its adaptive management for the population, which has been critical to reducing hybridization with coyotes.
“It makes absolutely no sense for the Service to take a successful reintroduction program like this and actively drive it into the ground.” said Tara Zuardo, a wildlife attorney with the Animal Welfare Institute. “Americans wholeheartedly support red wolves; it’s the Service’s job to foster recovery of endangered species; now it’s time for the agency to do its job.”
To learn more, read the District Court’s order granting the preliminary injunction.