World’s Only Wild Red Wolves in Jeopardy

America’s rarest wolf, the red wolf is a smaller and a more slender cousin of the gray wolf. The color for which it is named can be seen in the reddish cast to its fur.


Photo © USFWS

Shy and secretive, red wolves tend to form pair-bonds for life and have an average litter size of two to six pups.


Photo © USFWS

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Court stops U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service from capturing, killing wild red wolves More »

The U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina today issued a preliminary injunction that orders the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to stop capturing and killing—and authorizing private landowners to capture and kill—members of the rapidly dwindling population of wild red wolves.

On behalf of Defenders of Wildlife, the Animal Welfare Institute and the Red Wolf Coalition, SELC argued in a September 14 court hearing that a preliminary injunction was needed to stop USFWS from harming these native wolves in the wild. Earlier that same week, the agency announced its proposal to remove most members of the world’s only wild population of red wolves that roam a five county area in northeastern North Carolina and put them into captivity. This approach means abandoning all protective efforts except in one refuge where one pack lives and in a bombing range.

“This is a great day for red wolves and for anyone who loves nature in eastern North Carolina,” said Senior Attorney Sierra Weaver. “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.”

The groups brought the federal agency to court for its failure to protect the world’s only wild population of red wolves—previously estimated to be over 100 animals and now consists of only 29. Court filings detail a population decline of more than 50 percent over the course of two years, as well as the agency’s ongoing actions and inactions that imperiled the survival and recovery of the species in the wild. Previously, USFWS stopped key conservation actions and began authorizing private landowners to kill red wolves on their land. It also has been capturing wolves throughout the five-county red wolf recovery area, and holding them for weeks or months before releasing them into unfamiliar territory, separated from their mates and pack.

“This wolf is running out of time. We have a short window to put red wolves back on a path to recovery or we will lose the last wild population in America,” said Defenders of Wildlife President and CEO Jamie Rappaport Clark. “The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service needs to get its red wolf program back on track and start taking actions that will help, not hinder, recovery.”

A strong majority of North Carolinians support the effort to recover the native red wolf, according to a new poll conducted by Tulchin Research. The new poll revealed that 73 percent of North Carolinians said they support red wolf recovery. The survey also found that more than 80 percent of registered voters throughout North Carolina believe the USFWS should make every effort to help the endangered red wolf population recover and prevent its extinction.

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Survival of America’s Rarest Wolf at Stake

As few as 28 wild red wolves (Canis rufus)—the world’s only wild population of red wolves—live in a five county area on the Albemarle Peninsula of eastern North Carolina. According to population estimates by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the wild population of red wolves has declined by about half of what it was three years ago when an estimated 100 red wolves lived within the same area.

The survival of these wild red wolves is in jeopardy. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced in June 2015 that it authorized the killing of a breeding female wolf exhibiting denning behavior and suspended red wolf reintroductions into the wild.

On September 29, 2016, the Southern Environmental Law Center on behalf of the conservation groups secured a preliminary injunction that will protect the remaining wolves from recent, significant changes in USFWS policy that allowed red wolves to be captured and killed even when they posed no risk to human, pet, or livestock safety.  Recognizing that SELC and its clients are likely to prevail on our claims that USFWS is violating federal law, the judge banned the agency from capturing or killing---or authorizing private landowners to capture or kill---any wild red wolves unless they threaten public safety, livestock, or pets.

Just weeks before the injunction, the agency had proposed placing all wolves in captivity except for those occupying a netional wildlife refuge and a U. S. Navy bombing range in eastern North Carolina.  The scientists who conducted the research on which the agency relied subsequently sent a letter to the UFWS flagging that the justification for its new plan was full of "alarming misinterpretations."

The Return of Red Wolves

North Carolina is home to the only wild population of red wolves in the world.  Red wolves bred in captivity were successfully reintroduced on a North Carolina peninsula within their native range in the late 1980’s after red wolves were declared extinct in the wild. Once common throughout the American Southeast, intensive predator control programs and loss of habitat decimated wild red wolf populations.


Listen to the red wolf chorus


Previous Court Action
In July 2013, the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission authorized coyote hunting both during the day and at night with artificial spotlights within the area designated for red wolf recovery.

The law center notified the NCWRC that it was in violation of the federal Endangered Species Act by allowing hunting of coyotes within the Red Wolf Recovery Area and the groups would file a federal enforcement action unless the commission took steps to protect the wolves. Subsequently, the parties agreed to a settlement to address shootings of wild red wolves, including banning coyote hunting by spotlight at night within the Red Wolf Recovery Area and requiring for the first time permitting and reporting for coyote hunting during the day within the five-county area. Since the settlement, the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission passed a resolution calling for red wolves to be declared extinct in the wild and demanding USFWS to remove red wolves from the wild.

Coyote Control
To prevent wild red wolves interbreeding with coyotes, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife in the past sterilized coyotes that held territories within and near red wolf habitat. Shooting sterilized coyotes undoes effective coyote population control efforts and further jeopardizes the native wild red wolf population.