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Endangered red wolves in eastern North Carolina have another chance of survival thanks to a Nov. 4 ruling by Chief Judge Terrence W. Boyle of the Eastern District Court that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) violated provisions of the Endangered Species Act and the National Environmental Policy Act when it rolled back protections for red wolves in eastern North Carolina.
In his ruling, Boyle said that an injunction issued against Fish and Wildlife’s shoot-to-kill authorization in 2016 during the Obama administration is permanent. The agency must prove that a red wolf (canis rufus) is a threat to humans or livestock before it can make a decision to take its life.
He reminded the USFWS of its own statement in 1999. “Wildlife are not the property of landowners but belong to the public and are managed by state and federal governments for the public good,” Boyle wrote.
The ruling came in a lawsuit brought by the Red Wolf Coalition, Defenders of Wildlife, the Animal Welfare Institute and the Southern Environmental Law Center against the USFWS.
Boyle found that USFWS’s “argument that their current red wolf management efforts are sufficient and within their discretion fails,” according to the ruling.
Conservation measures that had helped the red wolf population grow from 16 animals in 1987 to more than 130 in 2016 had been abandoned in recent years, advocates said, allowing their numbers to drop to as few as 24 in the wild.
Kim Wheeler, director of the Red Wolf Coalition, was pleased with Boyles’ action.
“Rolling back protections is the opposite of what this species needs,” she said in a Defenders of Wildlife press release. “The court’s ruling makes clear that the USFWS must recommit to red wolf recovery and resume its previously successful management policies and actions.”
Wheeler’s group, a red wolf education group based in Columbia, Tyrrell County, had filed a lawsuit against the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission in 2014, asserting that the commission had pressured USFW into stopping its recovery efforts in the state and allowing the killing or taking of endangered red wolves, thus violating the Endangered Species Act.
The Fish and Wildlife Service had moved in June to avoid court action on the coalition’s lawsuit by proposing a new rule–Rule 10(j)–to restrict wild red wolves to one National Wildlife Refuge and a bombing range in eastern North Carolina, while allowing North Carolina landowners to kill any wolf that stepped onto their property. This proposed rule has not been finalized.
Conservation groups oppose this proposed rule, seeking reinstatement of previous management measures.
New rules are expected to be issued soon, Wheeler said, and until then, “it is just more waiting.”
Previously, red wolves could roam a designated 1.7 million-acre, five-county Red Wolf Recovery Area.
Conservationists noted that virtually all of the more than 108,000 public comments on the agency’s proposed Rule 10(j) were opposed. Fewer than 50 comments, including 13 from a real estate developer, supported the proposal to restrict red wolves to federal lands.
Red wolves are often misidentified as coyotes, and North Carolina is fighting coyotes through hunting permits. Red wolves are sometimes shot by hunters who say they confused them with coyotes. Landowners opposed to red wolves have complained that the wolves killed livestock and reduced game animals such as deer that people like to hunt.
The red wolf in the Albemarle Peninsula is considered the most endangered canine in the world. Formerly extinct in the wild, red wolves grew from four pairs released in 1987, to over 100 animals in eastern North Carolina from 2002 to 2014.
Since then, due to management changes, the red wolf population plummeted in the last four years to 30 to 40 known red wolves in the Albemarle peninsula, which includes Hyde County. There are currently about 200 wolves in captivity nationwide.
A prior Observer story about the red wolves by Pat Garber, who also contributed to this article, can be read here.