Is the US Fish and Wildlife Service Slow Recovery for the Red Wolf?

Last spring, amid the headlines about the coronavirus, some heartwarming news caught national attention. Seven red wolves were born in April and May at the North Carolina Zoo. Images of Lily, Aster, Cedar, Sage and their siblings, all named after plants native to the state, have circulated widely on social media.

About 250 red wolves live in 43 zoos, wildlife sanctuaries and other refuges across the United States. A sophisticated captive breeding program, in partnership with the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), even includes a wolf herd book to help ensure genetic diversity.

But in the wild, the native American wolf remains one of the country’s most endangered species. Only nine red wolves are known to roam an area of ​​five counties in northeastern North Carolina, all followed by radio collars. USFWS estimates that a dozen more live in the territory. No wild litter has been born for two years.

The USFWS has taken action to help the wild red wolf, but not enough and not quickly enough, according to wolf advocates. Several recent lawsuits highlight their belief that the USFWS, through its lack of urgent action, is essentially letting wildlife go extinct. Losing the wolves now would be particularly maddening given that the USFWS managed to replenish the wild population from extinction in 1980 to around 130 animals by the late 2000s.

The Southern Environmental Law Center, on behalf of three conservation groups, announced in September that he plans to sue the USFWS for policies on the red wolf in North Carolina that violate the endangered species law. The USFWS has “proven methods and tools to recover this iconic species,” says Southern Environmental Law Center lawyer Ramona McGee. Yet the USFWS has stopped releasing captive wolf cubs into wild dens as well as spaying coyotes to prevent puppies of mixed species and other beneficial species. Through the lawsuit, the plaintiffs hope to force the USFWS to resume these techniques to save the species in the wild.

Wild red wolves once roamed the Southeast, the East Coast, and as far west as Texas. Beyond the declining wolf group in North Carolina, the question arises as to when the USFWS will identify other places in the wolf’s historic range where it could be reintroduced. These sites could be part of the USFWS red wolf recovery plan, but the agency has not updated the plan since 1995. Last winter, the Center for Biological Diversity sued the USFWS. for the lack of a current plan. According to the settlement agreement, that was approved this week, the USFWS has until February 2023 to create a new plan.

The USFWS has already lost a separate wolf lawsuit. In November 2018, Judge Terrence Boyle lambasted the USFWS for violating endangered species law in its red wolf management practices. His ruling made it illegal for private landowners to shoot wolves unless the USFWS can prove that a wolf is a known danger to humans, livestock or pets. Red wolves are generally not aggressive towards people and tend to stay with each other.

After the move, the USFWS said it would “review” the rule changes it had proposed to dramatically reduce wolf range in North Carolina. This review is officially still ongoing. And the USFWS has only doubled down on its claim that it is prohibited from releasing wolves from captivity “although it had done precisely that for several decades before,” McGee says.

North Carolina landowners and officials who oppose the reintroduction of the red wolf have attempted to argue that red wolves have interbreded too much with coyotes to merit protection under the species law in Endangered. They persuaded Congress to commission a study to find out if wolves are a separate species, but the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine have confirmed in March 2019 that the red wolf is indeed unique. This means that the federal government still has an obligation to defend it against extinction.

“The number of wolves has dropped and for at least five years only one wolf has been released in the recovery area,” says Heather Clarkson, lawyer with the conservation group Defenders of Wildlife. This lone wolf, a male from St. Vincent National Wildlife Refuge in Florida, was paired with a female last winter in hopes they would produce young. Unfortunately, none has been successful. USFWS officials say they may transfer several more wolves from St. Vincent to northeastern North Carolina this winter to try again.

The USFWS recently began new efforts to protect the red wolf. In July, he started a program with the North Carolina Wildlife Federation called Prey for the Pack to inspire landowners in an area of ​​five counties to coexist with wolves.

Prey for the Pack provides landowners with technical assistance and financial incentives for habitat improvement, such as planting native vegetation and improving wetlands. Through a cost-sharing agreement, USFWS will help pay for improvements that attract quail, turkeys, white-tailed deer, or other prey species, prompting landowners who like to hunt on their property ( those who do not hunt may be motivated to join the program by the offer of money and technical know-how). All must in return pledge not to harass red wolves on their land and to maintain habitat improvements for 10 years.

The goal, says Joe Madison, program director for the USFWS Red Wolf Recovery Program in Manteo, North Carolina, is to encourage landowners to view red wolves as a benefit rather than a nuisance or perceived threat, and performing work on their property that they wanted to do anyway. “I hope this is a way to build better relationships with some of the biggest private landowners,” he says.

Advocates of the red wolf differ on the effectiveness of the program. This “could be a great tool to help improve local views on Red Wolves and the USFWS,” said Kim Wheeler, executive director of the Red Wolf Coalition, based in Columbia, North Carolina. “USFWS needs to find a way to engage with local landowners and encourage participation in red wolf conservation. She sees Prey for the Pack as “a good place to start.”

Perrin de Jong, lawyer at the Center for Biological Diversity, is more skeptical. With significant public support, the wild population could benefit from increased prey species and other protections, he says. But he notes that the program is voluntary and “does nothing to address one of the main factors in the collapse of the wild population”, including genetic threats from invasive coyotes, lack of suitable mates, intentional killings. – for which de Jong says there has been no prosecution. – and “no effort to secure a new habitat for the species throughout the region”.

Madison takes issue with the premise that the USFWS is not invested in the few remaining wild red wolves. “We fight every day to continue to establish and grow this population here in North Carolina. That’s what we’re focusing on, ”he says. He also says the USFWS, along with other groups, are considering resuming coyote spaying on private land to prevent hybrid coyote-wolf puppies. Ultimately, he adds, “the intention is to have multiple reintroduction sites so that you have populations in multiple areas” to make the species “less susceptible to catastrophic events.”

If the red wolf is allowed to expand outside its current range, private owners will be more likely to be convinced that wolves are not a threat if they see North Carolina successfully managing conflict. potentials between wolves and landowners. Wheeler believes there is already more local support for Red Wolf conservation than people realize. “While there is a ‘vocal minority of people against the program who take every opportunity to voice their opinions,” “she said, there are more who appreciate having the only wild population of red wolves in the world. world in their backyard and understand the need to preserve this native predator to maintain ecological balance.

Beyond the North Carolina initiative, red wolves need a current recovery plan and management strategy to thrive. The USFWS says updating the Red Wolf’s recovery plan is a priority and has engaged the Conservation Planning Specialist Group (CPSG), a global network of conservation professionals, to provide analysis and recommendations for the plan.

CPSG Senior Program Officer Philip Miller said the group will analyze threats and opportunities for the wolf and create a variety of scenarios through computer modeling. Once they have identified what is biologically best for increasing wolf numbers, the group will address two important questions, says Miller: “What are the management alternatives that can actually be implemented in the field, and how? are you getting buy-in from all the different stakeholders? Miller was involved in a similar project for the Mexican wolf in the southwestern United States, which led to a revised recovery plan in 2017. At present, the Mexican wolf is doing better than its cousins ​​red wolves, with over 160 in the wild.

From now on, the USFWS is due to release an updated plan for the recovery of the red wolf by February 2023, as stipulated in the settlement agreement with the Center for Biological Diversity. When asked if the plan could be completed sooner, the USFWS said in a statement that it typically takes 18 to 24 months to put together and synthesize the data for a stimulus plan, and how it works. with CPSG, “the timelines associated with the project will be established. . “

But time is running out for the wild wolves of Tar Heel State. “Although this is a long-term milestone, under the status quo we will not have any more wild red wolves in North Carolina by 2023,” said McGee of the Southern Environmental Law Center. “A recovery plan several years away will not address the urgent and current needs of the remaining handful of known wild red wolves. They need help now.”

Over the coming year, the captive breeding program will continue to serve as an “insurance population” when the USFWS is ready to launch a larger recovery effort, said program coordinator Chris Lasher. It can even grow slightly, up to 265 captive wolves. Lasher believes more education is the key to helping Americans appreciate the red wolf as part of our natural heritage. We were once responsible for eradicating the wolf. We could still bring him back.

“People see a bald eagle flying overhead and have this feeling, ‘Wow, that’s a bald eagle,’” he says. “I want people to feel the same about the American Red Wolf.” When more people feel that sense of awe, that is the day when “recovery programs really stand a chance”.

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