By JOANNA KLEIN
Conservation groups submitted an emergency petition last week requesting that the United States Fish and Wildlife Service increase protection for the only wild population of red wolves left in the world.
Red wolves, which are bigger than coyotes, but smaller than gray wolves, are the only wolf species found completely within the United States. Trapping, shooting, poisoning and destruction of habitat in the 1960s, however, eliminated all but 17 of them from their native range, which was primarily in the Southeast. In By 1980, red wolves were declared extinct in the wild, and the last animals were gathered and bred, then reintroduced in North Carolina in 1987. They were the first federally-listed species to be returned to their native habitat, and have served as models for other programs.
Recently the population has declined by more than 50 percent in just two years. There are only 45 to 60 red wolves now living in the wild, and they are threatened, mostly by hunters mistaking them for coyotes and shooting them, said Tara Zuardo, a wildlife lawyer at the Animal Welfare Institute. The wildlife service recently announced a review of the Red Wolf Recovery Program. It was prompted in part by pressure from North Carolina’sWildlife Resources Commission, a state-run conservation agency funded in part by the sale of hunting and fishing licenses, which has called the program a failure and claimed that wolves have damaged private land. Some changes to the program were taken against the advice of some of the biologists of the federal red wolf program.
Mating pairs of red wolves establish territory that prevents coyotes from making it their own, and unlike gray wolves in the west, the timid red ones do not threaten livestock. Red wolves eat mostly small prey like rabbits andnutria, invasive beaver-like rodents that have been destroying crops in North Carolina. But some private landowners are concerned that establishing a critical habitat for red wolves will allow the federal government to control use of their land, which they lease for hunting deer and wild turkey, Ms. Zuardo said.
Even if the Fish and Wildlife Service were to end its project in North Carolina, it plans to continue working to establish self-sustaining wild populations elsewhere in their native range.