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A federal judge has ordered the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to halt its plan to transfer the reintroduced population of endangered red wolves from the wild into captivity.
“This is a great day for red wolves and for anyone who loves nature in Eastern North Carolina,” said Sierra Weaver, senior attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center. “The court was clear that it’s the Fish and Wildlife Service’s job to conserve this endangered species, not drive it to extinction. The agency cannot simply abandon that responsibility.”
After nearly two years of study on the future of the reintroduction program, the Fish and Wildlife Service released a Sept. 12 report that concluded recovery of wild red wolf populations was possible only if “significant changes” to the program were implemented and outlined a plan to gather most of the population — estimated at less than 45 — from the five southeastern North Carolina counties where it roams and concentrate on bolstering captive red wolf populations. By October 2017, the report said, the Fish and Wildlife Service would determine more suitable locations for reintroduction efforts. Environmental groups denouched the decision.
The history of red wolf reintroduction efforts is a long and contentious one. Reintroduction was attempted in the Smokies during the 1990s but ultimately failed. The small population in southeastern N.C. is the only wild population in the world, and a cadre of environmental groups had sued the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission for its implementation of coyote hunting rules viewed as dangerous to red wolves, which look similar to coyotes and had been shot in cases of mistaken identity. The lawsuit ended with the parties agreeing to a series of limits on coyote hunting in the affected area, but afterward the Wildlife Commission asked the Fish and Wildlife Service to end reintroduction efforts and remove existing red wolves from private land.
That’s essentially what the Fish and Wildlife Service decided to do following conclusion of its study on the matter, but environmental groups took the issue to court. On behalf of Defenders of Wildlife, the Animal Welfare Institute and the Red Wolf Coalition, the Southern Environmental Law Center argued in a court hearing on September 14 that a preliminary injunction was needed to stop the agency from harming these native wolves in the wild.