The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has announced plans to allow private landowners to kill critically endangered red wolves that stray onto their property from a protected federal wildlife refuge in North Carolina.
Critics say the proposal will effectively end a 30-year effort to save the wolves in the eastern part of the state. Only about 35 of the wild wolves remain in the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge near Manteo, North Carolina, or in the vicinity. Another 200 red wolves are in captive breeding facilities, FWS said in a statement released Tuesday.
Red wolves were declared endangered in 1967 under the Endangered Species Preservation Act of 1966. Hoping to save the species, a team of biologists rounded up remaining wild wolves — just 17 along the Gulf Coast of Texas and Louisiana — and selected 14 to start an in-captivity breeding program.
In 1987, Fish and Wildlife released four pairs of red wolves into the North Carolina refuge.
“While many of the captive-bred wolves adapted well to a wild environment, the program faced unforeseen challenges,” FWS said in its announcement.
The agency began to receive hundreds of phone calls from private landowners in the area complaining that the wolves were hunting small game on their property. The wolves also began breeding with smaller coyotes they had previously hunted in an effort to survive.
The agency proposes that protection be restricted to the dozen or so wolves that reside in the area of the refuge. The protection would exclude other wild red wolves that are currently protected on non-federal grounds in a designated five-county Red Wolf Recovery Area.
“Under this new proposal, there would be no prohibitions on the take of red wolves on non-federal lands outside the (refuge) area, provided the take occurs in conjunction with an otherwise lawful activity,” the Wildlife Service said.
The agency says it will redirect its focus to the dozen or so wolves that remain “on certain public lands in Hyde and Dare counties, North Carolina.”
Greg Sheehan, the service’s principal deputy director, says this will reduce external threats to the animals and allow wildlife officials to better monitor their environment.
“A recent Species Status Assessment informed us that past strategies were not effectively leading to recovery, so we believe that a concerted effort in a managed area will help,” Sheehan said.
Critics of the proposal say the move may lead the species to extinction.
“The law is clear that it’s the Fish and Wildlife Service’s job to conserve these endangered wild red wolves, but the agency is instead driving America’s red wolf to extinction in the wild,” Ramona McGee, attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center, said in a press release.
“Limiting red wolves to a sliver of land suitable for only a handful of wolves, while allowing ‘open season’ to kill, trap or capture these highly endangered wolves on non-federal lands in the former Red Wolf Recovery Area, is an abhorrent plan to abandon the wild red wolf, not recover them as required under U.S. law,” she added.