August 24, 2016
Heidi Ridgley

Don’t let FWS’s inaction allow the rarest canid in the world — and the most endangered mammal in the United States — to go extinct.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) has all but abandoned red wolves in North Carolina. This means certain extinction in the wild for a critically endangered wolf species that exists in the wild nowhere else on the planet.

A decision from FWS Director Dan Ashe on the future of the program, including possibly whether he will allow the program to continue in North Carolina, is expected in September.

In the meantime, FWS has suspended work on the program, ending fundamental recovery operations, such as captive-bred wolf releases into the wild to bolster the population.

Once ranging all the way from Texas, east to Georgia and up to Pennsylvania, by the 1970s red wolves had nearly disappeared in the wild because of intensive predator control and habitat loss. FWS captured the very last 17 wild red wolves on the planet in a last-ditch effort to keep the species from going extinct. The agency began a captive breeding program, and in 1987 reintroduced four pairs of the wolves into Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge in North Carolina. There, they successfully denned and raised pups. As the program continued, the species eventually got somewhat of a paw-hold in the wild. The plan was – and on paper, still is – to recover the species enough that the population in Alligator River is thriving, and to reintroduce red wolves to other suitable reintroduction sites across their native range in the southeast.

Charged by federal law to protect our country’s threatened and endangered species, FWS had remained committed to the program until recently, when a vocal minority and the North Carolina Wildlife Resource Commission began putting pressure on the agency to completely get rid of the program. This summer, the state House Natural Resources Committee even tried (unsuccessfully) to push a bill to the floor that requested FWS to end red wolf recovery.

Recently, we’ve seen different elements of the program simply fall to the wayside. So far, the agency has:

• Refused to release any new wolves into the wild since 2015
• Issued permits to private landowners to kill non-problem wolves
• Removed red wolves from the wild, causing significant harm to the breeding population
• Reduced or eliminated critical efforts to collar and track red wolves.

The program’s opponents claim it is destined to fail. In reality, it is the agency’s inaction that is condemning red wolves to extinction in the wild, and could condemn the remaining wolves to a fate as zoo curiosities. In 2014, while FWS actively managed the program, the wild red wolf count stood at about 100. Today, now that the agency has stepped back, fewer than 60 wild red wolves still roam the Earth. That’s the lowest number red wolves have been at since the late 1990s, and despite a recovery plan that calls for three populations, they are still solely found in eastern North Carolina.

But it’s not too late. The majority of scientists agree that with time and dedicated management by FWS, this program can succeed and the wolves can continue to recover. And this summer, FWS received petitions from nearly half a million people asking the agency keep the red wolf recovery program alive.

FWS spokesperson Tom MacKenzie told the Smokey Mountain News that the agency will consider recommendations from all sides and that “input from citizens and partners like the state are part of the process—important along with the biology, research and related conservation work that we take into account.”

But FWS has called for no public hearings or comment period. They conducted a feasibility study to determine how effective and worthwhile red wolf reintroduction might be, but haven’t made the results of the study public. They haven’t asked for input so far – but you can still join us in keeping up the drumbeat for red wolf recovery.

The world’s rarest wolves have come so far, shown such resilience, and proved they can recover when given the opportunity. We demand that FWS keep the program in North Carolina alive, and establish new release sites so red wolves can expand their historical range. Join us in calling on Secretary of the Interior Jewell and FWS Director Dan Ashe and tell them to recommit to red wolf recovery! Our red wolf needs to be protected in the wild and restored to its native range. We drove this species to the brink. It’s up to us to save it from extinction.



Heidi Ridgley

Editor of Defenders Magazine
Heidi Ridgley is editor of Defenders magazine, covering some of the country’s most imperiled wildlife species, what Defenders of Wildlife and conservationists are doing to

Follow Defenders of Wildlife

Get Updates and Alerts