The number of known red 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.
Conservationists say they are simply allowing the wolves to die off.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is on track to have the decision by summer, said spokesman Tom MacKenzie. “The actual number of wolves has always been difficult to ascertain,” he said.
“Director (Dan) Ashe and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service are deliberately condemning the red wolf to extinction,” said Brett Hartl, endangered species policy director at the Center for Biological Diversity. “The red wolf recovery program was once a shining example of successful conservation. Under the direction of Ashe, the program has been quietly dismantled to appease a few anti-wildlife zealots. It’s disgraceful.”
The red wolf once was the Lowcountry’s own, an animal as big as a German shepherd that moves with a slinking feral grace. Shot as a nuisance for generations, it was pronounced extinct in the wild in 1980, when only 14 captive wolves were known to be alive.
It was first reintroduced in 1987 largely as a wild breeding program on Bull’s Island in the Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge north of Charleston. The wolves now roam wild only in and around the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge in eastern North Carolina, where numbers are dropping. Many have been shot under depredation permits, as varmints or mistaken for coyotes.
The reintroduction program 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 like deer.
In an update for the years 2012 to 2015 released in January, Fish and Wildlife reported 45 known surviving wolves. The best estimate previously had been 50 to 75 wolves. The update reported 16 deaths, including four from suspected or confirmed gunshots, two from private trapping, two from suspected illegal taking and one from poisoning.
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.
The report comes as conservationists led by the Red Wolf Coalition sue 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.
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