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Fish and Wildlife Service ditches controversial red wolf rule

Red wolf. Donated photo Red wolf. Donated photo

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced last week that it would withdraw its 2018 proposed red wolf management rule , which conservation groups decried as a “death sentence” for red wolves in the wild. 

“Wildlands Network and other conservation groups fought the 2018 proposal tooth and nail, and then for three years all we’ve heard is crickets from USFWS,” said Wildlands Network Chief Scientist Ron Sutherland. “To finally be able to put this awful, cowardly proposal to bed is super-gratifying and great news for the future of the red wolves.”

A five-county region of southeastern North Carolina is the only place in the world where wild red wolves  exist, the result of a reintroduction program that begin in the 1990s. But in 2018, the Fish and Wildlife Service put forward a plan in which it would cease to manage red wolf populations on private lands — meaning that, outside small areas in two of the five counties, hunters and landowners could kill the endangered animals with no repercussions. The plan also included a halt to reintroduction efforts, such as the release of additional wolves to the area. 

Following the Fish and Wildlife Service announcement, the 1995 management plan will remain in effect, meaning that the agency will manage the population in all five counties and continue its reintroduction and adaptive management efforts. It will also work with the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission to implement coyote sterilization, including on private lands when the landowner enters into a written agreement, and engage stakeholders to facilitate more peaceful co-existence between people and wolves. 

Landowners will still have the right to shoot wolves when necessary to protect themselves or others from harm, or to protect pets or livestock in immediate danger. 

“Based on recent court decisions involving the NC NEP and having considered public comments submitted in response to the 2018 proposed rule, the Service determined that withdrawing the proposed rule is the best course of action at this time,” reads a press release from the Fish and Wildlife Service. 

The decision comes after the agency has endured years of court challenges from conservation groups, including a lawsuit introduced last November that is still active in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina, claiming that new and illegal agency policies bar use of proven management measures to save the wolves. In a 2018, a federal judge presiding over a separate lawsuit ruled  that the Fish and Wildlife Service’s rollbacks on protections for the red wolf violated the Endangered Species act and National Environmental Protection Act. 

However, the three-year delay in reversing the proposal has taken a shattering toll on the wild red wolf population, Sutherland said. Though a couple hundred red wolves still live in captivity, when the proposal was released in July 2018, about 35 wild red wolves remained, down from a peak of 150 wild wolves 10 years prior. 

Now, there are 10. 

“The species is on the slippery, crumbling edge of the literal brink of extinction, and it is so crucial that we now see positive conservation action from federal and state agencies to save Canis rufus,” Sutherland said. 

Red wolves once ranged across the entire Southeastern U.S., from eastern Texas down into Florida and all the way up into Pennsylvania, but their numbers dwindled to nearly nothing as the 20th century wore on. The Fish and Wildlife Service attempted to reintroduce them to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in 1991, but that effort failed. The reintroduction effort then relocated to the eastern part of the state. 

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