Federal wildlife officials plan to announce this month a decision on the future of the nearly 30-year old Red Wolf Recovery Program in eastern North Carolina. The effort to reintroduce the endangered species has faced numerous challenges.
Federal officials declared the red wolf extinct in the wild in 1980. Seven years later, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service began an experiment to reestablish the species on federal lands in a five-county area on North Carolina's Albemarle Peninsula. Wolves were later also released on nearby private lands.
The program has encountered opposition from some landowners and hunters. And since 2012, more than 30 red wolves have been killed in the region, according to wildlife officials and environmental groups. That includes wolves struck by vehicles, or victims of confirmed or suspected gunshots -- in some cases possibly due to hunters mistaking red wolves for coyotes.
As the coyotes' range expanded across North Carolina in the 1990s, another major impediment for the recovery program surfaced: cross-breeding between wolves and coyotes. "It really only takes a couple of hybridization events to get to the point where even that offspring is not considered a red wolf," says Gordon Myers with the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission.
In January, 2015 the state wildlife agency called on U.S. Fish & Wildlife officials to end the red wolf reintroduction effort in eastern North Carolina, saying the program had failed to meet its objectives. The number of wolves currently surviving in the recovery area is estimated at between 40 and 60 - roughly half the estimate in early 2015.
Environmental and animal welfare groups are urging the federal agency not to abandon the North Carolina project. "To remove this animal -- I think it sets a horrible precedent for other endangered species," says Kim Wheeler with the Red Wolf Coalition, based in Columbia, NC. She feels that ending the program would send a message that "when things get tough, we'll just pull the plug and we'll walk away."
Wheeler says the Red Wolf recovery effort does need revamping. The Fish & Wildlife Service began its latest review of the program last October, in a process that has included science experts, the state wildlife agency, advocacy groups, and private landowners. The federal agency has said that even if it decides to discontinue the recovery effort in eastern North Carolina, other efforts to sustain the endangered red wolf would continue.
Read U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service Q-&-A on Red Wolf Recovery Effort.
See North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission resolutions regarding red wolves.