SELC court case secures red wolf releases into the wild

Eight endangered and captive red wolves will be released into the wild in North Carolina, a conservation method proven to work. (© U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

In a direct result of our latest court case challenging U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, red-wolf breeding facilities just announced the release of four extremely rare red wolves into the wild in eastern North Carolina. They also reported the fostering of four red wolf pups with a female wild red wolf in the state.

We won the federal court ruling in January on behalf of Red Wolf Coalition, Defenders of Wildlife, and Animal Welfare Institute, compelling the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to avoid irreversible harm to the highly endangered population by developing a plan to release captive red wolves.

“Getting more red wolves in the wild in North Carolina is what we’ve been fighting for, and this is finally a step in the right direction,” says Sierra Weaver, a senior attorney. “The ultimate question is going to be whether this marks a return to the service’s historic conservation commitment, or whether it is going to take more court orders to keep this up.”

The news of the releases came the day before a scheduled court hearing about the Fish and Wildlife Service’s obligations under the court’s January injunction. An order issued soon after that hearing confirmed that the court would maintain ongoing supervision of the agency’s ongoing actions to release wolves. This will require the agency to provide a status report to the court in August and plan for another status hearing in November.   

As few as seven red wolves remained in the wild when the lawsuit was filed, following the agency’s refusal to release any captive wolves for the past six years. It suspended this longstanding and successful practice within the approximately 1.7-million acre Red Wolf Recovery Area in 2015. In stark contrast, during the first five years of its red wolf reintroduction program in eastern North Carolina, the Fish & Wildlife Service released an average of eight wolves per year, totaling 134 red wolves over the program’s 35-year history.

Click here to hear red wolves bark and howl in the wild.

“Without this coalition’s dedicated legal advocacy, the red wolf could have been lost from the wild again,” says Ben Prater, Southeast program director at Defenders of Wildlife. “It is our hope that FWS will recommit to conducting annual releases to ensure a future for the species.”

We sued the service in November 2020 for violating the Endangered Species Act by barring the use of proven and essential conservation measures like captive red wolf releases and coyote sterilizations. In January 2021, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina ordered the agency to develop a plan for the release of captive red wolves into the wild during the pending litigation. The next hearing in that case is scheduled for later this week.

“These releases represent an exciting and important step toward boosting the wild red wolf population,” says Johanna Hamburger, director and senior staff attorney for Animal Welfare Institute’s terrestrial wildlife program. “Though the USFWS’s efforts are many years overdue, and a long road lies ahead, we are encouraged to see the agency again managing the species for recovery, not extinction.”

Our hope is that these newly released wolves will flourish in the wild, and that the federal Red Wolf Recovery Program will continue offering a path toward recovery in North Carolina.

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