Lowcountry’s own red wolf in dire straits in the wild (copy) (copy)

An endangered red wolf walks its enclosed habitat at Sewee Visitor and Environmental Education Center in the Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge near Awendaw. File

It could soon be open hunting season on the few red wolves remaining in the wild, federal wildlife managers announced Wednesday.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposed revising its management plan for the native Southeast species to restrict the protected population to the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge near Manteo, North Carolina.

Only about 35 of the roaming wild wolves are known to remain in the refuge or in its vicinity.

Outside the restricted area, those wolves could be hunted if the plan is approved.

"Under this new proposal, there would be no prohibitions on the take of red wolves on non-federal lands outside the (refuge) area, provided the take occurs in conjunction with an otherwise lawful activity," the Wildlife Service announced.

Wildlife conservationists say the proposal would amount to the end of an iconic species and an important alpha predator now missing in the regional ecosystem that includes South Carolina.

“The law is clear that it’s the Fish and Wildlife Service’s job to conserve these endangered wild red wolves, but the agency is instead driving America’s red wolf to extinction in the wild,” said Ramona McGee, attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center, one of several groups suing the agency over its handling of the program.

The wolf is designated an endangered species and protected under federal law. But the wolves wandering the countryside outside the refuge are designated a “nonessential experimental population,” which allows their removal as nuisances.

The plan calls for continuing to breed the captive population — a program currently struggling — with an eye to returning the animals to the wild eventually if suitable areas can be found.

Earlier plans proposed bringing wolves back to the Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge on the coast north of Charleston, where the first wild breeding program was established. Only about 200 animals remain in captive programs, including three at Cape Romain. 

The move toward allowing hunting was not unexpected. In 2016, the agency said the wolf would be curtailed in the wild on the Southeast coast. But the removal of rules to keep it from being hunted down was a stark concession to nearby landowners who say that wolves roaming off the federal refuge property are depleting livestock and game animals.

The wild animals there, once at a peak population of 130, have been shot and otherwise lost one by one.

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 refuge.

Nearby residents and others were wary at first, but the wolves became widely popular, an emblem species of the refuge that drew a stream of curious visitors even though there was little chance of spotting one of the furtive, nocturnal animals.

The occasional wolf that wandered to nearby beach islands was tracked by fawning residents until recaptured.

But the program was handcuffed by small budgets and staff, and the wolves eventually were removed mostly to the Alligator River refuge in 2005. That program, now the only remaining wild population reintroduction, also has been hampered by small budgets and staff.

The rest of the captive population is kept in locations across the country, including Cape Romain.

The proposal now goes to a 30-day public comment period. Comments can be made online at www.fws.gov/southeast.

Reach Bo Petersen Reporter at Facebook, @bopete on Twitter or 1-843-937-5744.

Science and environment reporter. Author of Washing Our Hands in the Clouds.