Environmentalists want to know how the critically endangered red wolf population in Eastern North Carolina is doing, but federal officials won’t release documents about the conservation efforts, according to a new lawsuit.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is breaking public records law by refusing to release information on the wolves, according to the lawsuit filed Monday by the Southern Environmental Law Center.
“This is about the Service’s lack of transparency,” said staff attorney Ramona McGee, who filed the Freedom of Information Act lawsuit.
“The red wolf population in North Carolina is the only population in the world,” she said.
A spokeswoman for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in North Carolina did not respond to a request for comment on Tuesday.
McGee said the federal agency used to release regular reports on the red wolf program, but “right now, we’re not getting any information.”
A public records request from the Southern Environmental Law Center asked for information about the red wolf population and documents related to new rules for a government-run program to protect the animals.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service started the program in the late 1980s to reintroduce red wolves to the wild in the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge in Eastern North Carolina. They make up the only red wolf population surviving in the wild.
The species was declared extinct in the wild in 1980, and the only wolves left were in captivity. Historically, the wolves roamed across the southern United States, according to federal wildlife officials, but they were devastated by habitat loss and hunting.
After the species was reintroduced in North Carolina, the number of red wolves peaked at 130 in 2006, according to the lawsuit. But then the population saw a “catastrophic” decline. McGee said there are now as few as 14 red wolves in the wild.
The population shrank so dramatically because the feds stopped using the conservation methods that had worked over previous decades, the lawsuit says. Those efforts include “releasing red wolves into the wild and sterilizing coyotes to prevent hybridization.”
The federal government also began issuing permits to allow people to kill the wolves, according to the lawsuit.
The lawsuit is one in a series of legal fights between environmental groups and the government over North Carolina’s red wolves.
Last year a federal judge ruled the Trump administration violated the Endangered Species Act when it rolled back red wolf protections, The News and Observer reported.
“The wild red wolf is again close to extinction, with as few as forty wolves identified in the wild in April 2018,” the judge said in November 2018.
The judge ordered the Fish and Wildlife Service to stop killing the animals and to stop issuing permits for others to kill them.
As a result of the ruling, the feds extended the review of new red wolf rules.
The Southern Environmental Law Center represented a coalition of environmental groups in that lawsuit. The new suit says the organization put in the Freedom of Information Act requests in December 2017 and February 2019.