By DAN MCCUE
(CN) – Greens claim in court the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service repeatedly failed to produce requested documents pertaining to a review of the federal red wolf recovery program.
In a lawsuit filed Monday in Raleigh, N.C., the Center for Biological Diversity says it submitted a Freedom of Information Act request to the agency on Sept. 9, 2015, seeking records related to a feasibility review of the government’s red wolf conservation efforts.
“The Service has repeatedly failed to provide an estimated date of completion of a determination on the Center’s FOIA Request and has failed to provide any records that are responsive to the Center’s FOIA request,” the complaint says.
Once plentiful in the south-central and eastern United States, the red wolf population declined dramatically in the early 20th century due to habitat degradation and efforts by farmers and others who saw them only as predators to kill them off.
The red wolf was originally designated an endangered species in 1967, and its status was renewed in 1973, under the then-new Endangered Species Act.
In 1975, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service determined the only way to save the species from extinction was to remove all of the wolves from the wild and institute a captive-breeding program.
The agency ultimately captured more than 400 wolves, but only 17 were identified as genetically pure red wolves. Of those, 14 became the founding members of the captive-breeding program.
However, because all known red wolves were living in captivity, in 1980 the species was declared extinct in the wild. Two years later, the agency approved the first red wolf recovery program.
Today, the Red Wolf Recovery Area encompasses about 1.7 million acres, but in recent years there has been some uncertainty about just how many red wolves are living in the wild.
According to the center’s complaint, the population is believed to have peaked at about 130 wolves in 2006, but since then, the Fish and Wildlife Service has revised the number downward, to between 50 and 75 wolves and all of them living on the Albermarle Peninsula of northeastern North Carolina.
On June 30, 2015, the agency issued a press release announcing it would cease releasing red wolves into the wild while it gathered additional science and research into the feasibility of recovering the species under guidelines established by the Endangered Species Act.
“The Center submitted its FOIA Request to understand why the Service was undertaking a feasibility review of the Red Wolf Recovery Program — in light of a comprehensive, independent peer review conducted by the Wildlife Management Institute which concluded that red wolf introductions were a success — and to safeguard the Center’s interests in biodiversity and the protection of wildlife,” the complaint says.
The environmentalists say the Fish and Wildlife Service acknowledged receipt of the request, asked for a clarification of the timeframe covered by it, and then “provided a partial response containing only eight records.”
“In its letter accompanying the response, the Service stated that the remainder of the responsive records was undergoing review, and that ‘[o]nce the review is complete’ the Service would provide a response,” the complaint says.
The Center for Biological Diversity says it has made numerous attempt to secure the rest of the records it sought, but to date, “the service has failed to provide any releases of records that are responsive to the Center’s FOIA Request other than the first partial release of eight records.”
It seeks an order compelling the agency to produce the requested documents, a declaration that the agency failed to meet its obligations under the Freedom of Information Act, court costs, attorney’s fees, and “other and further relief as the Court may deem just and proper.”
The Center is represented by Douglas Ruley of Davis & Whitlock in Asheville, N.C., and Margaret Townsend of the Center for Biological Diversity in Portland, Ore.