Only 14 red wolves remain in the wild — half the number that were out there a year ago. They are a native species in South Carolina.
No one knows how many breeding females might be left. Time is running out.
Their dilemma has become so critical that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is now being sued for refusing to disclose what it is doing to maintain the critically endangered species, despite repeated Freedom of Information requests.
"They're stonewalling," said attorney Ramona McGee with the Southern Environmental Law Center, which filed the lawsuit this week. "You need this information to do anything. We are really being left in the dark."
A Fish and Wildlife spokeswoman did not reply to an email and a phone message asking for comment.
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.
A wild breeding program launched in the Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge north of Charleston was pivotal to bringing back the species to more than 150 animals. Moved to a North Carolina refuge in 2005 as a cost-cutting measure, the wolves have continued to decline.
Restoring and reintroducing the species is required under the federal Endangered Species Act law. One of of the Fish and Wildlife department's proposed reintroduction sites is the Cape Romain/Francis Marion National Forest wilderness sites north of Charleston.
Wolves, like sharks, aren't everybody's favorite species. They're considered a dangerous nuisance by some and have been hunted as varmints for centuries. But the presence of these apex predators has been shown to be critical to keeping ecosystems healthy.
Conservationists consider the red wolf an important native species now missing in the region. Some contend restoring the population in South Carolina would help control invasive nuisances such as coyotes.
The failure to release records comes as the service proposes removing the Western states' gray wolf from the Endangered Species list altogether, opening the animal to trophy and depredation hunting — a move that conservationists say could doom the animal just as it's regained a foothold in the ecosystem.
"The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has gone down a dangerous path with the red wolf program, withdrawing support for the wild population and watching these magnificent animals die off one by one," said Perrin de Jong, a staff attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity who is based in North Carolina.
The center is in a third round of its own lawsuits over the service's failure to comply with Freedom of Information requests "due to the systematic lack of transparency shown by the Trump Administration," de Jong said.
The service has been withholding hundreds of management records from the public, he added.
Last year, a North Carolina ruling threw a legal wrench into a Fish and Wildlife proposal to curtail the wild breeding program altogether.
A federal judge ruled that the service violated the Endangered Species Act law "by failing to administer the red wolf recovery program," and by permitting private landowners to shoot as a nuisance any wolves that wandered off the refuge there.
More than 60 wolves have been shot on private lands around the North Carolina refuge, nearly all on private property.
The wolves were first reintroduced in 1987, largely as a wild breeding program on Bulls Island in Cape Romain. The program has continually been handcuffed by small budgets and minimal staff.
The loss of the wild animals wouldn't be the end of the species, McGee said. About 200 remain in captivity, including a female and male at the Sewee Visitors Center in Cape Romain. Part of the law center's intent is to keep the Fish and Wildlife Service doing its job, reintroducing animals from that captive population to the wild.
Having wolves out there already with wild instincts regained, could be important to the reintroduction success, she said.
"Absolutely, reintroduction could happen again. It all comes down to the release of the captive population," she said.