Save the red wolf, a half-million people tell feds

A half-million people have signed a petition to save the red wolf. Only a handful of native species remain in the Lowcountry in captivity.

As the recovery program for the imperiled red wolf hangs by its last claws, nearly a half-million people have signed a petition started by two high school students calling on federal regulators not to abandon it. The petition was delivered earlier this week.

The red wolf once was the Lowcountry’s own, a native species as big as a German shepherd that moves with a stealthy grace. The number of known wolves in the wild has dropped to 45 while federal managers delay a decision on what to do about the controversial, barely successful program reintroducing the species to the wild.

The Lowcountry, where the wild breeding program began, is one of the places that has been considered to expand the reintroduction.

The reintroduction program at the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge in eastern North Carolina has been handcuffed by small budgets and staff. It’s opposed by nearby landholders, who say that wolves roaming off the federal refuge property are depleting livestock and game animals.

Conservationists say the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is simply allowing the wolves to die off.

A bill is now working its way through the North Carolina legislature calling for the service to “declare the red wolf extinct in the wild and terminate” the program.

The students’ petition was picked up and circulated by conservation groups, such as the Wildlands Network; other petitions were folded into it. But its more than 498,369 signees are an impressive number. In comparison, some 77,000 people signed online or paper petitions calling for an end to oil-and-natural gas leasing off the Southeast coast, according to Oceana, although 1.4 million comments were made in a public review including those signatures.

“One of the critical narratives about the red wolf program is that it has lost public support. The reality is clearly different,” said Ron Sutherland of the Wildlands Network. If the program is ended, “it may be decades before another reintroduction is attempted in some other Eastern state. Eventually (captive red wolf keeper) zoos will lose interest if it is clear the wolf has no future in the wild.”

The service in February said it was on track to make a decision on the program’s future by summer. Asked Thursday, a spokesman did not update that schedule.

“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,” said spokesman Tom MacKenzie.

The wolves previously were shot as a nuisance for generations, then pronounced extinct in the wild in 1980, when only 14 captives were known to be alive. They were first reintroduced in 1987 largely as a wild breeding program on Bulls Island in the Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge north of Charleston.

It became widely popular among residents who were wary at first. But that program, too, was handcuffed by small budgets and staff, and the wolves eventually were removed, mostly to the Alligator River refuge, in 2005. The wolves now roam wild only in and around the refuge in eastern North Carolina, where numbers are dropping.

Many have been shot under depredation permits, as varmints or mistaken for coyotes. The survivors are about one-third of the peak wild population of 120 to 130 reintroduced wolves. About 200 remain in captive populations, including four at the Cape Romain refuge.

Conservationists led by the Red Wolf Coalition are suing the service over what they claim is its failure to protect the endangered species and illegal action in authorizing the killing of a female breeding red wolf, according to a news release.

The suit is part of a campaign to keep the service from curtailing the program, which is under periodic review after 30 years. Federal wildlife managers put off a decision in October 2015.

Reach Bo Petersen at 843-937-5744, @bopete on twitter or Bo Petersen Reporting on Facebook.