The last of the South Carolina native red wolves in the wild just got a reprieve from what conservationists considered a death sentence.
A federal judge has ruled that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service violated the Endangered Species Act by permitting private landowners to shoot as a nuisance any wolves that wander off the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge in eastern North Carolina.
A wild breeding program for them at the refuge is hanging by a thread. The service's proposal amounted to an open hunting season on the few red wolves remaining in the wild, conservationists say.
The judge also ruled the service violated the law "by failing to administer the red wolf recovery program" the act orders.
That ruling throws a legal wrench into a Fish and Wildlife proposal to curtail the wild breeding program altogether, a plan that was expected to be finalized by the end of November. The recovery program entails reintroducing animals to the wild.
The service did not comment on the ruling. A spokeswoman referred questions to the U.S. Department of Justice.
"We are currently reviewing the decision," Justice spokesman Jeremy Edwards said.
Only about 35 of the roaming wild wolves are known to remain in the refuge or in its vicinity, down from a peak population of 130. They have been shot and otherwise lost one by one.
"They tend to wander," said attorney Derb Carter with the Southern Environmental Law Center, which sued the service. "They don't read boundary signs."
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 wolves 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. The wolves in Alligator River today largely are descendant of those wolves.
The plan called for continuing to breed the population — the program that is currently struggling — with an eye to returning the animals to the wild eventually if suitable areas can be found.
Conservationists consider the wolves an important alpha predator now missing in the regional ecosystem that includes South Carolina, which is being overrun by invasive species such as wild hogs. Among the proposals was bringing wild wolves back to Cape Romain.
The wild breeding program have been handcuffed by small budgets and staff, and the wolves eventually were removed mostly to the Alligator River refuge in 2005.
At that North Carolina refuge, the program has been opposed by some nearby landholders who say that wolves roaming off the federal refuge property are depleting livestock and game animals. Others say coyotes are doing nearly all that damage.
U.S. District Judge Terrence Boyle ruled that Fish and Wildlife approved the "take" permits to shoot wolves without determining whether the animals posed a threat and without determining whether the killings would further jeopardize the species' survival.
In the ruling, Boyle described the service's actions as arbitrary and capricious.
Fish and Wildlife can appeal the ruling to a higher court but Carter said he is confident "the weight of the law is with us. You just can't make what, in our view, are political decisions" regarding how to manage the recovery program, he said.
"I think the thing to watch is what Fish and Wildlife decides to do with this (program curtailing) proposal," he said.