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RALEIGH, N.C. — Government wildlife officials say they will release more critically endangered red wolves into the wild in North Carolina.
The move comes after a federal court ruled back in January the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service had to take action by March to restart the release of captive red wolves into their recovery area in the eastern part of the state.
Heather Clarkson, southeast program outreach representative for Defenders of Wildlife, said reintroduction and management is urgently needed to save the world’s most endangered wolf species, with only an estimated ten to twenty red wolves in the wild today.
“As of right now, the only place that you can find wild red wolves in the country is North Carolina,” Clarkson explained. “North Carolina has been at the center of this recovery program for 30 years. These wolves are such an incredibly important part of North Carolina’s ecosystem.”
Three decades ago, the red wolf was reintroduced in the state to rebuild a population nearly extinct from hunting and development. In 2014, the number of wild red wolves peaked around 130, but has since steadily nosedived.
More than 30 U.S. lawmakers, including Rep. G.K. Butterfield, D-N.C., of Greenville, recently signed a letter urging the government to immediately implement a comprehensive plan to prevent the wolf’s extinction.
Clarkson noted the effort was spearheaded by Rep. A. Donald McEachin, D-Va.
“We’re very excited to see support from our northern neighbor, especially given the close proximity to the program,” Clarkson remarked.
Clarkson pointed to cross-fostering, where wildlife biologists take infant pups and pair them with a wild litter and a surrogate mom, as an effective tool for boosting the wild population. But she added the government continues to stall on releasing captive wolves.
“So, they made the decision as the agency to stop releasing,” Clarkson recounted. “And that was as a result of some years of conflict and pretty devastating losses in the red wolf population in North Carolina.”
In addition to releasing captive wolves as soon as possible, she suggested U.S. Fish and Wildlife management could work with state agencies to identify more lands that could function as habitat for red wolves, and protect them from accidental gunshots by educating hunters how to spot differences between red wolves and coyotes.