The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has until Feb. 28, 2023, to complete an updated recovery plan for red wolves, only nine of which are known to exist in the wild today, following an agreement signed last Friday in U.S. District Court for Eastern North Carolina.
The agreement settles a lawsuit filed last November by the Center for Biological Diversity in an effort to end “foot-dragging” by the federal agency in updating a recovery plan for the red wolf, as required by the Endangered Species Act.
The red wolf once could be found from southeast Texas to southern Illinois, as far north as central Pennsylvania, and as far east as the coastal prairies of Virginia and North Carolina and southward to Florida.
According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the red wolf’s range once included all of West Virginia.
By the early 20th Century, the red wolf population had been decimated by habitat loss and hunting and trapping to collect bounties designed to reduce preying on farm animals.
By the 1960s, the range of the red wolf was limited to small populations along the Gulf Coast in Texas and Louisiana.
A few years after the red wolf was listed as an endangered species in 1973, only 17 were known to be living in the wild, according to the Wolf Conservation Center in South Salem, New York.
That remnant population was captured and became the core of a captive breeding project.
In 1980, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service declared the red wolf to be extinct in the wild, but within seven years, enough young wolves had been reared in captivity to re-introduce a portion of them into a segment of the species’ former range in the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge in northeast North Carolina.
By 2006, the number of red wolves living in the wild in North Carolina had risen to 130, but has steadily declined since then.
According to the Wolf Conservation Center, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service stopped releasing young red wolves born in captivity into the wild, and failed to expand the number of release sites on public land.
The agency also allowed landowners to kill red wolves straying off the refuge and onto their property, and dropped a program that reduced the number of coyotes to prevent hybridization from harming the gene pool.
No red wolves have been born in the wild during the past two years.
Last October, the Center for Biological Diversity issued a report identifying 20,000 acres of federally managed lands in six states within the red wolf’s former range that could provide habitat for 500 breeding pairs of red wolves.
Included in that report were West Virginia’s 919,000-acre Monongahela National Forest and 124,000 acres of the George Washington and Jefferson National Forests that spill into West Virginia from Virginia.
Last November, the Center sued the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for failing to update a red wolf recovery plan, which the agency, following earlier litigation, had committed to completing by the end of 2018. The current recovery plan dates back to 1990.
The Oct. 2 agreement, signed by U.S. District Judge Terrance Boyle, is the result of the 2019 lawsuit.
“Time is running out to save red wolves and government foot-dragging has only made the problem worse,” Collette Adkins, carnivore conservation director for the Center for Biological Diversity, said in a statement announcing the agreement. “It’s frustrating that we’ve had to sue time and again to get action. Hopefully, this win finally gets these vulnerable wolves the help they need.”
Red wolves are smaller than gray wolves, which also once roamed the hills of West Virginia, and larger than coyotes, which moved into the state in the latter decades of the 1900s.
Red wolves are named for the reddish-brown hair found behind their ears and on the backs of their legs, but for the most part, their coats are buff or brown, with black streaks on their backs.
The last wild wolf known to exist in West Virginia — a gray wolf — was killed in 1897 in Webster County.