RALEIGH, N.C. (CN) — The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is facing a new challenge from red wolf advocates, who said in a federal lawsuit Monday that the agency is failing to conserve the critically endangered species.
“Faced with a wild population of only seven known animals, the Fish and Wildlife Service is now claiming — without basis — that it’s not allowed to take proven, necessary measures to save the wild red wolves,” said Sierra Weaver, senior attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center, in a statement.
The Southern Environmental Law Center filed the new complaint in the Eastern District of North Carolina on behalf of the Red Wolf Coalition, the Animal Welfare Institute and Defenders of Wildlife.
The trio says the Fish and Wildlife Service is violating the Endangered Species Act because its new policies “bar the use of proven management measures to save wild red wolves.”
“Under the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s mismanagement, the world’s most endangered wolf has only moved closer to extinction,” Jason Rylander, senior endangered species counsel at Defenders of Wildlife, said in a statement.
The handful of red wolves remaining in the wild can be found exclusively in the eastern part of North Carolina.
To preserve the species, the agency’s 1986 “red wolf rule” originally authorized the reintroduction of captive red wolves into Dare County and the adjacent Tyrrell, Hyde, Washington and Beaufort Counties.
The rule was altered over time, but in 2018, the Fish and Wildlife Service proposed a controversial revision.
“In the preamble of this rule, the Service stated that the currently applicable 1995 red wolf rule did not permit additional releases of red wolves beyond the first 12 wolves that had been released in 1987,” attorneys for the Southern Environmental Law Center wrote in Monday’s complaint.
More than 100 wolves were released into the five-county Red Wolf Recovery Area between September 1987 and April 2014.
The plaintiffs argue the federal agency did not specifically refer to any language in the 1995 rule that limits the number of wolves released.
They say the agency refuses to reinstate the practice of reintroduction, even though a federal judge in 2018 ruled that its red wolf conservation plan violates the Endangered Species Act.
“Rather than resolving those violations, the agency has doubled down on its abandonment of those measures and invented a new, illegal policy that the USFWS claims does not permit it to release red wolves from the captive population into the wild,” the plaintiff groups wrote in a statement.
“The agency also now claims that its rules do not allow it to address hybridization with coyotes. As a result, the world’s only population of wild red wolves is now on the brink of extinction,” the groups’ statement added.
Hybridization with coyotes threatened the wolves’ already fragile population and prompted the widespread sterilization of coyotes by the Fish and Wildlife Service starting around 2000. Environmental groups say this initiative has recently been abandoned.
“We hope the USFWS will look closely at its red wolf conservation policies and enact the necessary changes that will make the survival of wild red wolves a priority,” Red Wolf Coalition Executive Director Kim Wheeler said in a statement.
Last month, the Fish and Wildlife Service reached a settlement with the Center for Biological Diversity in a separate lawsuit over the red wolf conservation policies.
Chief U.S. District Judge Terrence Boyle in the Eastern District of North Carolina gave the agency until the end of February 2023 to update its plan for saving the endangered species.