On September 12, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) announced its proposal on the fate of the Red Wolf Recovery Program. To say that I am disheartened would be putting it mildly. I’m a lot closer to: “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore!”
While the FWS tried to spin it that they are still committed to recovery of the red wolf, the agency’s proposed actions speak much louder than their rhetoric. Here’s what FWS proposed – and what’s wrong with it.
First, the FWS proposed “to move quickly to secure the captive population of red wolves, which we now know is not sustainable in its current configuration.” This was, in our book, very clearly a ‘red herring’ for the red wolf and here’s why:
By looking at the FWS’s own Population Viability Analysis (PVA) – an assessment frequently used in conservation biology to determine the probability that a species will go extinct within a number of years – there is no more than a 0.5 percent chance that the captive population of red wolves will go extinct over the next 100 years.
The same analysis shows that without immediate action, the wild population of red wolves could perish in less than ten years.
Next, the FWS proposes “to determine where potential new sites exist for additional experimental wild populations by October 2017.” While expanding release sites and recovery locations throughout the red wolf’s original range in the Southeast makes total sense for the species, giving up on wolves in North Carolina absolutely does not. That move makes me howling mad.
A recent poll shows that 81 percent of voters statewide agree that: “The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service should make every effort to help the endangered red wolf population recover and prevent its extinction.”
Additionally, 27 legislators from North Carolina wrote to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in August 2016, asking that the agency redouble its efforts to recover the red wolf.
This program was once the model of success for wolf recovery efforts in the United States. Despite the efforts of dedicated on-the-ground staff, poor decision-making by FWS’ Southeast Regional Office has caused this program to crumble. As a result, the population of wild red wolves in North Carolina has crashed from a high of 150 to less than 45 wolves today. That’s reason to fix the program, not to close it down. It will take years to build new recovery programs and public support for wild wolves in other locations, and in the meantime, we could be learning from an expanded effort in North Carolina.
FWS also proposes “to revise the existing experimental population rule to apply only to the Dare County Bombing Range and Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge…” What does this actually mean for wolves on the ground in North Carolina?
Starting in 2018, FWS plans to reduce the habitat of the world’s only population of wild red wolves from 1.7 million acres spread over public and private lands, down to 200,000 acres of public lands in one county. This reduces the red wolf recovery area and habitat to just 12 percent of its former range.
Additionally, FWS wants to round up any red wolves outside of Dare County and put them into a captive breeding program in zoos across the country.
This is a complete disaster for wild red wolves. Restricting wolves to one small space in the wild doesn’t put them on the road to recovery and goes against their very biology. Thankfully, our legal team working with our conservation partners recently won a preliminary injunction against the Service, limiting how red wolves can be removed from private land. But the fact that officials would even suggest this measure doesn’t bode well for future management decisions.
Finally, FWS proposes to “complete a comprehensive Species Status Assessment and five-year status review for the red wolf (by Oct. 2017), building on the foundation of work accomplished over the past two years and past history. This will guide the Service’s recovery planning in the future.”
All I can say is this is a massive game of kick the can down the road. This proposal is, essentially, a plan for extinction. Clearly, the current administration is backing away from a nearly 30-year investment in recovering red wolves in the wild and passing the buck to the next administration. The FWS decision undoes nearly three decades of work to recover the red wolf in North Carolina. The Red Wolf Recovery Program was the example for wolf restoration efforts in Yellowstone National Park and for the Mexican gray wolf in the Southwest.
There will be public comment periods on this proposal once the FWS begins to make official decisions. When this happens, we’ll be calling on everyone who cares about red wolves to tell the FWS to do its job and recover endangered species in the wild, not just in captivity. We will be organizing red wolf supporters to stand up for their native wolf. And we will continue working with private landowners, elected officials and the public to build on the strong support for red wolves in North Carolina.
It is time for the public and the conservation community to stand firm and united behind red wolf recovery. Together we can lead this program towards a better future, and save the world’s most endangered wolf from extinction.
SPEAK UP FOR RED WOLVES
There are no more than 60 red wolves in the wild, down from almost 150.
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