By Sara Sneath
Two rare wolves keep their distance from visitors at The Texas Zoo in Riverside Park.
With perked ears, they pace back and forth toward the back of their enclosure and watch the passers-by.
Red wolves, which were declared extinct in the wild in 1980, are a shy species. But they’ve been in the spotlight in recent months as wildlife advocates and North Carolina landowners war over the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s efforts to recover the species.
In 1973, a breeding program began at the Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium in Tacoma, Wash. Wildlife experts were able to build up the population enough to reintroduce the wolves to the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge in North Carolina.
About 40 zoos and nature centers, including The Texas Zoo, have helped to conserve genetic diversity and birth wolves to reintroduce into the wild, said Michael Magaw, The Texas Zoo’s curator of animals.
The population grew to more than 100.
But during the past two years, the population has plummeted by more than 50 percent, said Kim Wheeler, the Red Wolf Coalition executive director.
Hunters mistaking the rare species for coyotes have been one reason for the decline.
Three wildlife advocate groups – the Red Wolf Coalition, Defenders of Wildlife and the Animal Welfare Institute – say the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service isn’t helping the problem.
The service has authorized landowners to kill red wolves on their land and to capture and re-release wolves into unfamiliar territory, separating them from their mates and disrupting packs, according to the wildlife groups.
Monday, the groups asked the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina to stop the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service from authorizing the wolves to be killed or removed from their territory.
“We believe that the actions of the Fish and Wildlife Service are not keeping with their mission,” Wheeler said. “We see them as incredibly detrimental to the population.”
The service halted releases of wolves last year, when landowners complained that the wolves had become a nuisance to their land. Some landowners have also questioned the genetic purity of the species.
Red wolves are smaller than gray wolves and larger than coyotes. And while coyotes and red wolves are capable of hybridization, Wheeler said killing red wolves exacerbates the problem.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is currently undergoing a review of its recovery program for the species. The service is expected to announce its findings in September, Wheeler said.
“We’re all kind of sitting, waiting with bated breath on what exactly will happen,” she said.