Can the red wolf survive outside of zoos? Is it really a distinct species? These are some of the questions that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) says it needs to answer before it can decide whether to continue managing the only population left in the wild. The agency announced today that it would spend the rest of the year evaluating its recovery efforts and conducting research on the controversial species, and won’t release any more animals into the wild for the time being.
Advocates are concerned that the agency is winding down its efforts to protect the wolf. “The emphasis and tone have moved far away from the conservation and recovery of an endangered species and seems to be preparing the public for its eventual extinction in the wild,” says Sierra Weaver, an attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.
Red wolves were nearly hunted to extinction in the 20th century. Biologists established a captive breeding population in zoos, some of which FWS released back into the wild starting in 1987. Between 50 and 75 red wolves (Canis rufus) remain on a peninsula in North Carolina. The main threat is hybridization with coyotes, which have encroached on wolf habitat. Until recently wolves were being shot by hunters at night, but a court banned the practice in 2013. Many landowners were upset, and the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission (NCWRC) promptly demanded that FWS take a hard look at its wolf recovery program.
After a review by the nonprofit Wildlife Management Institute (WMI), completed this past November, FWS decided it needs to learn more. “The scope of our feasibility review will be broader and focus on questions and issues related to whether the overall recovery of the red wolf in the wild is truly attainable in light of the challenges identified in the Institute’s evaluation,” according to a statement. The major hurdles flagged by WMI are the need for multiple wild populations, hybridization with coyotes, the integrity of the wolf genome, and land ownership patterns in wolf habitat.
FWS is coordinating its research with NCWRC. Gordon Myers, executive director of NCWRC said in a teleconference that an important improvement would be upgrading the radio collars of red wolves that are captured on private land. This would allow researchers to identify wolves that repeatedly encroach and not release them again. FWS will convene a meeting of experts to try to come to consensus on the question of whether the red wolf is distinct species. Some scientists think it is a hybrid of red wolves and coyotes.
The agency also said today that it would not release new wolves to the peninsula while the review is underway (although it hasn’t done that in a year or so). Also remaining on hold is a key management activity—the release of sterilized coyotes to prevent hybridization—that NCWRC had prohibited. In addition, Cindy Dohner, FWS southeast regional director, said that the agency will improve communication with landowners who object to the wolves and establish a stakeholder forum to work with state, landowners, and conservation groups.