Doyle Rice, USA TODAY
Only 40 endangered red wolves remain in the wild in the U.S., and the population could go extinct within eight years, according to a report recently released by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
“Time is running out for red wolves,” said Collette Adkins, a biologist and senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity. “We need to move fast if we’re going to keep them from disappearing forever.”
Once a common sight across the entire southeastern U.S., the red wolf was listed as endangered in 1967 and first declared extinct in the wild in 1980, according to the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS). However, an experimental colony of captive wolves was reintroduced into eastern North Carolina in the mid-1980s in an attempt to bring the species back to the wild.
While that colony peaked at about 120-130 wolves in 2006, that number has now dwindled down to 40.
“It is obvious that there are significant threats (to the experimental population) in eastern North Carolina, and conditions for recovery of the species are not favorable, and a self-sustainable population may not be possible,” the FWS said.
The red wolf “is one of the most endangered mammal species on the entire planet,” said Ron Sutherland, a scientist at the non-profit conservation group Wildlands Network. “For comparison purposes, there are around 1,600 giant pandas, 2,000 Bengal tigers and 4,500 snow leopards left in the wild, vs. only 40 red wolves,” Sutherland said.
Human hunters and vehicle collisions are the primary reasons for the wolves’ decline, and both will continue to be the greatest threat going forward, the report said.
Another factor in the decreasing wolf population is interbreeding with coyotes. And, eventually, human-caused climate change will also play a role, the FWS said in its report: “In addition, in time, sea-level rise may limit available habitat on the Albemarle Peninsula,” the report warned.
“We’re disappointed that the five-year status review appears to take great pains to describe the North Carolina wild population of red wolves as unsustainable,” Sutherland said. The FWS “stopped releasing new wolves from captivity, they stopped managing coyotes, and they’ve sat back and watched as gunshot mortality shredded the red wolf population.”
With many landowners and hunters opposed to the plan to continue the wild wolf population, North Carolina’s top wildlife official, Gordon Myers, told The Washington Post that it’s time to let red wolves disappear, at least from his state.
Conservationists fear this could become reality: “Red wolves face the very real possibility of vanishing from the wild if they don’t get the help they need,” Adkins said.