The federal government is bowing to North Carolina’s demands to stop releasing red wolves while defying New Mexico on Mexican gray wolves.
North Carolina legislators last week tried to pass a bill demanding that the United States Fish and Wildlife Service abandon efforts to save the critically endangered red wolf and declare the species extinct in the wild.
The legislation failed, but it is just one of many attempts to rid North Carolina of the red wolf.
For two of the rarest species of wolves in North America—the Mexican wolf and the red wolf—how the Fish and Wildlife Service responds to states blocking efforts to protect the animals could mean the difference between survival and extinction.
The wildlife agency has ignored calls from state game officials to stop releasing red wolves into New Mexico and Arizona. But it appears to have acquiesced to demands from North Carolina’s Natural Resources Commission to suspend the release of red wolves, a practice the agency has dubbed “a valuable technique” in keeping small, isolated wolf populations healthy.
“It’s interesting, because state officials in New Mexico and Arizona, where Mexican wolves are recovering, are opposed to wolves, but the Fish and Wildlife Service is pushing ahead—albeit begrudgingly—with their recovery effort,” said Brett Hartl, endangered species policy director at the Center for Biological Diversity. “But for the red wolf in North Carolina, it’s kind of a tragedy because it seems they have been forgotten.”
He sees the problem as a lack of political will from Dan Ashe, director of the Fish and Wildlife Service, to push the agency to act. “Instead, they seem to be walking away from their duties,” Hartl said.
Mexican wolves (a subspecies of gray wolves) and red wolves (the rarest canid native to the U.S.) have much in common. Seen as a threat to livestock, both were nearly exterminated in the 20th century. By the 1970s, Mexican wolves were nearly extinct, surviving mostly in Mexico. The few remaining wild red wolves were breeding with coyotes that had invaded their territory.
To save the species, the Fish and Wildlife Service rounded up the few purebred red wolves and Mexican wolves to start captive breeding programs. In 1987, red wolves became the first captive-bred top predator to be released back into the wild, the foundation of what the agency has labeled an “experimental population” of 50 to 100 animals kept within a five-county region of North Carolina. In 1998, it followed suit with the Mexican wolf, reintroducing an experimental population of the subspecies among the juniper woodlands of Arizona and New Mexico.
Both species are listed as endangered by the Fish and Wildlife Service, which is required by the Endangered Species Act to protect and recover the animals to sustainable population levels in the wild.
Today, Mexican and red wolves continue to struggle to establish a foothold in their historical range. Only 97 Mexican wolves were counted in 2015, compared with 110 in 2014. The current population of red wolves is estimated at between 50 and 75 individuals in the wild, compared with 75 to 100 in 2013.
The Fish and Wildlife Service and conservation groups have listed a number of reasons for the recent declines of both populations, including a suspected increase in illegal wolf killings by cattle and livestock owners, more cases of “mistaken identity” where hunters targeting coyotes end up accidentally killing wolves, and lower survival rates for pups born in the wild. For red wolves, interbreeding with coyotes remains a problem.
Critical to the survival of both species, said Heather Clarkson, the southeast coordinator for Defenders for Wildlife, is for the Fish and Wildlife Service to continue introducing pups born in captivity into wild packs. Apart from a population boost, the captive pups introduce genetic diversity into the limited pool of wild wolves.
“With the threat these wolves are facing on the ground from landowners and the genetic issues in the wild, these wolves need the pup fostering program,” Clarkson said. “Without it, we’ll keep seeing the population decline.”
The agency recently decided to introduce new captive-born pups into the Mexican wolf population while suspending the practice in North Carolina. And exactly why it has resisted opposition in New Mexico but not in North Carolina remains unclear.
In New Mexico, the Fish and Wildlife Service released two captive pups into wild packs earlier this year, even though state game officials refused to issue a permit for the program. The Department of the Interior had exempted the Mexican Wolf Recovery Program from a complying with state permit requirements in New Mexico. Soon after the pups were released, the New Mexico Department of Game sued the Fish and Wildlife Service, calling the reintroductions “illegal” and “unpermitted.”
John Bradley, an external affairs officer for the Fish and Wildlife Service in New Mexico, said the introduction of captive-bred wolf pups into the wild is a valuable technique to help increase the genetic diversity of the wild experimental Mexican wolf population. “We take seriously our responsibility to work closely with our state partners in meeting our obligation to implement sound solutions for wildlife recovery and management,” Bradley wrote in an email.
The Center for Biological Diversity and Defenders of Wildlife have intervened in the state lawsuit on behalf of the Fish and Wildlife Service to help ensure future wolf releases won’t be slowed by the state’s permitting process.
“We want to make sure the Fish and Wildlife Service is allowed to do their jobs, and make sure this species has a chance to recover,” said Eva Sargent, senior southwest representative for Defenders of Wildlife.
But the Wildlife Service seemingly put the job of recovering red wolves on hold last year, suspending captive pup reintroductions and no longer sterilizing coyote-red wolf crossbreeds found in the wild.
Leopoldo Miranda, assistant regional director of ecological services for the Fish and Wildlife Service’s southeast region, said the agency is continuing to manage the existing red wolf population while it evaluates how to move forward with recovering the species.
Miranda said a review of the red wolf recovery program conducted last year found that the Wildlife Service actually does not have the authority to release more than 12 animals into the experimental population, a limit set by a 1986 permit.
Over the years, the Fish and Wildlife Service has released 132 wolves into the North Carolina experimental population—a move that has angered landowners worried about livestock predation over the years. So why did it take the agency 28 years to discover the limit was 12 wolves?
“That’s part of why we are taking the time to review it now, to figure out how that happened,” Miranda said. In the meantime, the agency decided to suspend wolf reintroductions. “We are taking a step back and evaluating the best way to move forward with red wolf recovery.”
For the Mexican wolf, there is no limit on the books as to how many wolves can be introduced into the wild, but a rule established last year caps the experimental population in New Mexico and Arizona at 325.
Conservationists says the number is too low, especially because the revised rules give landowners more leeway to legally kill wolves in the act of attacking livestock.
“The new rules give Mexican wolves more room to roam, but the cap is going to make it hard for the species to ever fully recover,” Sargent said.
Miranda said comparing the rules and recovery methods for red wolves and Mexican wolves is not in the species’ best interest.
“The rules we publish for every experimental population of a species are unique—different for each location, habitat, and species, and those rules are decided in a public forum and based on the best available science for that species and region,” he said.
With its red wolf release efforts suspended, the Fish and Wildlife Service announced it is working on a review of its recovery plan and considering options that include identifying new locations for red wolf populations to be established, creating new pup-fostering rules, and possibly eliminating the program.
The review was scheduled for release by the end of 2015. It now is set to be completed by the end of this summer.
Hartl at the Center for Biological Diversity says the Fish and Wildlife Service is merely kicking the can down the road while red wolves in the wild suffer.
“They have a duty to recover the species, and it would be wrong, and a violation of the Endangered Species Act, for them to kill the program,” he said.
But Miranda said it’s important to differentiate the success or failure of the North Carolina experimental population of red wolves from the recovery of the species as a whole.
“The recovery plan for the red wolves actually calls for three self-sustaining populations throughout its historical range,” he said. “That’s our goal, and it has always been our goal. So, regardless of what’s decided with the North Carolina population, whether they stay or we bring them all back into captivity, we have a goal to establish self-sustaining populations in the long run.”