Today SELC filed suit against the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for its ongoing lack of transparency regarding management of the world’s last remaining wild red wolves, all of which live in eastern North Carolina. The complaint alleges the service unlawfully delayed and improperly withheld public documents in response to SELC’s requests under the Freedom of Information Act.
On December 5, 2017, nearly two years ago—and in the midst of ongoing litigation, rulemaking, and Congressional action regarding the world’s only population of wild red wolves—SELC submitted a FOIA request regarding the agency’s conservation and management of red wolves. The agency did not get SELC any documents responding to this request until February 2019 and, even then, only handed over 24 documents while withholding dozens more and stating that it was still reviewing other documents responsive to the request. Soon after, SELC submitted a second FOIA request regarding the agency’s ongoing and future actions related to conservation and management of red wolves. The agency has not provided any additional documents regarding SELC’s first request, and has not provided any documents at all in response to the second request.
The lawsuit comes as nearly a year has passed since the agency declared it would suspend its rulemaking process regarding red wolves. The announcement came in response to SELC’s victory in federal court challenging the agency’s mismanagement of red wolves. In that previous lawsuit, SELC represented conservation organizations suing the agency for issuing permits allowing the endangered animals to be shot or otherwise killed and abandoning its previously-successful red wolf management activities. Last November, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina agreed, issuing an order declaring the agency had violated the Endangered Species Act in gutting protections for the endangered wild red wolves in recent years. The court also made permanent its September 29, 2016 order prohibiting the agency from capturing and killing, and authorizing private landowners to capture and kill wild red wolves not posing a threat to human safety or property.
In 2011-2012 the agency documented seventeen breeding pairs of red wolves in the wild. In 2013-2014 only eight wild breeding pairs were reported. The wild population of red wolves reportedly did not have any breeding pairs in 2019. This population decline occurred as the Fish and Wildlife Service ceased previously-proven management methods and issued lethal take permits to private landowners.
During this catastrophic decline, the agency also stopped releasing information about red wolves that it previously provided to the public, including its Red Wolf Recovery Program Quarterly reports. The last such report released to the public was from January through March of 2014. Previously, Fish and Wildlife staff regularly updated annual red wolf mortality and population information on its website, but the agency began updating those numbers infrequently in 2015 and ceased releasing such information in 2016.
The agency has not released any updates to its red wolf management plans since it announced its intent to halt its red wolf rulemaking process. In an attempt to monitor the agency’s rulemaking progress and management of the wild red wolf population, SELC submitted these FOIA requests—but the agency continues to stall in responding to the requests, leaving SELC and the public in the dark as to what the government agency is currently doing, and plans to do, regarding the last wild red wolves.
North Carolina is home to the only wild population of red wolves in the world, with as few as 14 known wolves today. 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. SELC and our partners are committed to defending these wolves and their place in the wild.