By JONATHAN DREW, ASSOCIATED PRESS
RALEIGH, N.C. — The fate of the world’s remaining wild population of red wolves will be decided soon.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service plans to announce in September whether it will maintain, modify or abandon a 30-year effort to return the wolves to the wild in eastern North Carolina.
Meanwhile, conservationists say the wildlife service is already neglecting its duty and have asked a federal judge to step in. A Sept. 14 hearing is scheduled on their efforts to block what they say are harmful or lethal ways of removing wolves from private land.
Conservationists say the preliminary injunction is needed to halt population declines that have left between 45 and 60 animals roaming the wild. The wild population peaked at approximately 130 a decade ago and stayed above 100 for years, according to court documents.
“Our hope is that the agency will recommit to the population as a whole and the program as a whole. This injunction is really just to stop the bleeding,” Sierra Weaver, a lawyer for the Southern Environmental Law Center, said. “The idea is to make sure we still have a red wolf population to recover by the time we get to the end of this litigation.”
Once common around the Southeast, the red wolf had been considered extinct in the wild as of 1980 because of factors including hunting and habitat loss. Releases of red wolves bred in captivity started in 1987.
But in recent years, some North Carolina residents have complained that the wolves are increasingly straying onto private land and causing problems. Opponents also cite an outside evaluation from 2014 that found flaws in the recovery program.
Tom MacKenzie, a spokesman for the wildlife service, said federal officials would make a decision on the fate of the program in September after a lengthy review, but he couldn’t provide an exact date.
The conservation groups — which include the Red Wolf Coalition, Defenders of Wildlife and Animal Welfare Institute — note that the federal government has already halted practices that helped boost the population such as releasing captive-born pups into the wild and sterilizing coyotes that sometimes interbreed with the wolves.
Lawyers for the federal government, however, counter that they have maintained other efforts — such as tracking wolves with radio collars and providing veterinary care — while funding the program with more than $1 million in 2016.
They also note that another 200 or so red wolves live in captivity, justifying the designation of the wild wolves as “not essential to the continued existence of the species.”
The conservation groups’ request for emergency intervention hinges on arguments that the federal government twice gave landowners permission to kill wolves without meeting strict legal requirements since 2014. One wolf was shot as a result. Killing the endangered wolf is illegal in most instances.
Lawyers for the federal government say conservationists are misinterpreting the rules and that they also want the judge “to ignore the plain language of the red wolf regulations.”
One of the kill authorizations was given in 2014 to a landowner who tried nonlethal removal methods after complaining that wolves were killing game on his land and scaring his children, according to court documents.
Lawyers for the wildlife service noted in a court filing that the two kill authorizations were the only ones it had issued, saying that “the Service worked for years with the landowners to nonlethally remove wolves from their property until it became clear there was no possibility of successful capture.”