Big changes could be coming to the way the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service manages the world’s only wild red wolf population in northeastern North Carolina.
The population of wild red wolves hit an all-time high of 130 back in 2005-2006. Since that time, their numbers have quickly decreased. In 2014, there was an estimated 90 to 110 red wolves in the wild. Now, only 45 to 60 remain. As their numbers dwindled, the program trying to save them was in doubt. In 2014, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service conducted an evaluation of the Red Wolf Recovery Program to determine its effectiveness in restoring red wolves in the wild. After a two year, peer reviewed study, a revamped management plan was announced last September. In a media conference call, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Southeast Regional Director Cindy Dohner outlined the new plan, which shifts the Services’ focus from the wild population to the captive breeding program.
“We must essentially double it to at least 400 wolves. Currently, there are slightly more than 200 in captivity. We must nearly double the number of healthy breeding pairs to a minimum of 52.”
Now, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has started the process of revising the regulations under Section 10(j) of the Endangered Species Act that governs the non-essential experimental population of red wolves. Field Supervisor for the Raleigh based Ecological Services Field Office Pete Benjamin.
“The rules we have in place and the program we’ve been pursing to manage this population are very labor intensive. It’s requiring us to expend a lot of resources, staff and financial, to effectively manage this population. And that is hindering our ability to do other things we need to do for red wolf recovery such as focus on expanding the size of the captive population and searching for other areas in the range of the wolf that are potentially suitable for additional reintroduction sites.”
The rules as they exist currently were last revised in 1995. Benjamin says over the last 20 years, they’ve noticed difficulties in implementing the rule. Hybridization with coyotes, human related mortality and continued loss of habitat are some of the reasons why the Service is considering whether the rules governing the nonessential experimental population need to be updated.
“What we are really seeking is public input on how to make these rules under Section 10(j) of the Endangered Species Act more efficient and more effective, both from the point of red wolf conservation and from the affected community, the landowners and the communities where the red wolves exist.”
Currently, the only place in the world where red wolves are found in the wild is Beaufort, Dare, Hyde, Tyrrell and Washington counties. Under the proposed action, the Service wants to revise the existing experimental population rule to only include federal land in Dare County, specifically the Dare County Bombing Range and Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge. Many conservation groups, like Defenders of Wildlife are opposed to this idea.
“You hear a lot of technical jargon and Endangered Species Act legalese when it comes to this issue but the basic, fundamental question we are facing is really do red wolves have a place in the wilds of North Carolina? Or are they better off in zoos? And right now, Fish and Wildlife believes the latter.”
Christian Hunt is the southeast program associate for Defenders of Wildlife. He says shrinking the red wolf’s wild territory by about 90 percent would have a “catastrophic impact” on the wild population.
“And by many scientists predictions, it will result in extinction of red wolves in the wild within – by many estimates – eight years.”
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has a different take. While their proposed action seeks to condense the size of the non-essential experimental population, it would expand the captive breeding program. A proposed revision would authorize the movement of animals between the captive and wild populations in order to increase the number of red wolves in the captive-breeding program. The idea is that this would increase the number and genetic diversity of captive and wild red wolves.
“We need regular exchange of individuals between the wild and the captive populations so that the overall breeding pool is as large as possible to protect that genetic integrity and manage issues like inbreeding and things like that. So instead of looking at it in terms of we have a captive population over here and we have a wild population over here and they’re kind of managed separately, we’re trying to better integrate those two populations.”
The proposed rule document refers to this as a meta-population. Christian Hunt with Defenders of Wildlife says the plan won’t work arguing that decreasing the size of the red wolf recovery area in northeastern North Carolina would be detrimental to the wild population.
“It’s easy to understand that red wolves, they need space to move, they need large territories. And when you arbitrarily confine them to a small wildlife refuge. That is not conducive to growing the population and to securing the population in the long term.”
Currently, red wolves outside of the five county area are unprotected through the 10(j) rule. If it were to change, it’s not known what will happen to the red wolves that roam outside of Dare County.
Hunt believes red wolf recovery is possible if the Fish and Wildlife Service would recommit to the effort they started a decade ago. He says a number of factors, from the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission allowing coyote hunting, decreasing buy in for the program from land owners and the decision to do away with the coordinator for the red wolf program over two years ago caused the recovery effort to lose its effectiveness.
“Even by Fish and Wildlife’s admission, the program was called remarkably successful and it was. We had managed hybridization, the adapted management strategy was a success, we had biologist on the ground trying to recover this species and at that point, we had about 150 red wolves roaming the wilds of North Carolina. Guided by that strong leadership, the population was poised to continue growing. We just need to go back to that time and re-implement the strategies that led us to be successful in the first place.”
July 24th was the final day to submit comments on the proposed rule to revise the existing nonessential experimental population designation of red wolves. Benjamin says the goal is to have a proposed rule and a National Environmental Policy Act document completed by December.