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American red wolf protected in ruling against US Fish and Wildlife Service
© WikiMedia (Dave Pape)
American red wolf protected in ruling against US Fish and Wildlife Service

A federal judge ruled Sunday that the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) can no longer permit the killing of American red wolves unless they prove harmful to human or livestock safety.

The lawsuit was brought by the Defenders of Wildlife, who cited over 110,000 comments to the USFWS in support of the American red wolf’s conservation.

Earlier this year, the USFWS proposed shrinking the conservation area for the remaining 35 wolves. The proposal would restrict the conservation area to federal land and allow for the wolves to be killed on private property.

In 1967 the American red wolf was designated an endangered species under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) and in 1980 the wolf was declared extinct in the wild. In the wolves’ absence the range of coyotes increased. Starting in 1986 the USFWS made rules for the reintroduction of these wolves into a wildlife refuge in North Carolina.

The new rules state: “Intentional or willful takes of red wolves are not permitted in the Red Wolf Recovery Area unless it is in defense of a person’s own life or the lives of others” or if the USFWS gave its express permission.

It was understood that interactions between the wolves and humans would be a problem. In 1999 the USFWS distinguished “problem wolves” as those that exhibit inappropriate behavior in regard to humans or cause the loss of personal property. These wolves could be removed but it would interfere with their re-establishment and allow for coyotes to take over the area.

In 2007 the program was declared a success. The red wolf population numbered 130 with human interaction and gunshot mortality cited as the primary sources of harm to the wolves.

Starting in 2014 hundreds of letters came into the USFWS asking to remove the wolves from private property. It was determined that many of these requests came from people who thought they were petitioning against coyotes or who did not have red wolves on their property.

In the wake of these letters and pressure from state officials, the USFWS hired an outside agency to recommend action on the conservation program, they recommended it be shut down. Conservation efforts were stopped in 2015 and new rules were issued that no longer distinguished problem wolves from the others.

The 2015 rules were alleged to be in violation of the ESA by failing to adequately conserve the endangered wolves. The rules allowed for killing of non-problem wolves which, the court ruled, is contrary to the mandated conservation efforts of the USFWS.