Conservation groups sue USFWS to save wild red wolves

Agency continues to violate law, court ruling as wild red wolves face extinction

Updated 11/23 at 9am:

SELC filed a Motion for Preliminary Injunction in the new red wolf case, asking for more specific emergency relief to save the wild population from the threat of extinction while the case is pending. In addition to the motion, a memorandum in its support and a proposed court order also were filed with the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina.


As originally reported:

On behalf of Red Wolf Coalition, Defenders of Wildlife, and Animal Welfare Institute, today SELC sued the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina for violations of the Endangered Species Act caused by new, illegal agency policies that bar the use of proven management measures to save wild red wolves.

“The Fish and Wildlife Service is managing this species for extinction,” says Senior Attorney Sierra Weaver. “Faced with a wild population of only seven known animals, the Fish and Wildlife Service is now claiming—without basis—that it’s not allowed to take proven, necessary measures to save the wild red wolves."

Continues Weaver, "The service urgently needs to restart red wolf releases from captivity, which it did regularly for 27 years. Otherwise we’re going to lose the world’s only wild population of this wolf.”

Two years ago, in November 2018, a federal court found that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service  had violated the Endangered Species Act by suspending proven conservation measures for wild red wolves after we went to court on behalf of the same conservation organizations. 

Rather than resolving those violations, the agency has doubled down on its abandonment of those measures and invented a new, illegal policy that it claims does not permit it to release red wolves from the captive population into the wild. The agency also now claims that its rules do not allow the agency to address hybridization with coyotes. As a result, the world’s only population of wild red wolves is now on the brink of extinction.

The service urgently needs to restart red wolf releases from captivity, which it did regularly for 27 years. Otherwise we’re going to lose the world’s only wild population of this wolf.”

—Senior Attorney Sierra Weaver

“Under the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s mismanagement, the world’s most endangered wolf has only moved closer to extinction,” says Jason Rylander, senior endangered species counsel at Defenders of Wildlife. “We have given the service every opportunity to reverse course and supplement the last wild population of red wolves with captive releases. Sadly, with only seven collared wolves left in the wild, it’s apparent we can’t wait any longer.”

No red wolf pups were born in the wild in 2019 or 2020 for the first time since 1988. Meanwhile, the captive red wolf population continues to increase with more new pups being born every spring, even as the agency refuses to reinstate red wolf releases.

The proposed reduction to a red wolf recovery area.

"We hope the USFWS will look closely at its red wolf conservation policies and enact the necessary changes that will make the survival of wild red wolves a priority," says Red Wolf Coalition Executive Director Kim Wheeler.

Following successful conservation efforts and reintroductions from captive populations, America’s red wolves rebounded from extinction in the wild to number about 100 animals in the early 2000s. That population level persisted for approximately a decade in eastern North Carolina. Since 2018, however, the wild red wolf population has plummeted by 70 percent.

“The ESA requires USFWS to carry out programs for the conservation of the red wolf and to ensure that its actions do not jeopardize the species’ continued existence,” says Johanna Hamburger, director and senior staff attorney for the Animal Welfare Institute’s terrestrial wildlife program. “The agency is failing on both counts. The current lack of action, by USFWS’ own admission, will cause the extinction of the wild red wolf population unless the agency immediately restarts conservation efforts.”

Learn more about wild red wolves and hear them in the wild here.

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