For millennia, wild red wolves roamed across much of the American southeast. But in 1980, after centuries of overhunting and habitat loss due to human development, the wolves were declared extinct in the wild. Since then, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) has worked to reintroduce the endangered creatures to their old tromping grounds, starting in North Carolina. But recent clashes with conservationists over the program’s future has landed the government agency in court with no clear resolution at the moment.
The problems with reintroducing red wolves goes back to 1987, when the FWS began moving those born in captivity back into the wild. But while government officials set aside ranges for the wolves in the middle of North Carolina, wild animals don’t often abide by lines drawn on a map. The wolves soon began crossing onto nearby private property, harrasing livestock and scaring away deer, which angered landowners and hunters alike, Kaleigh Rogers reports for Motherboard.
As the red wolf population started to bounce back, locals were up in arms about some causing repeat problems. Meanwhile, conservationists protested as North Carolina officials allowed people to hunt coyotes in the middle of the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge where the wolves have designated habitat, as endangered wolves could have been confused for their smaller canine cousins, Darryl Fears reports for The Washington Post.
“We didn’t do some things quite right,” Jeff Fleming, assistant regional director of external affairs for the FWS, tells Rogers. “We weren’t always as responsive as we should have been to landowners who had concerns about a red wolf on their property.”
Faced with issues on both sides, the FWS recently proposed a hard reset of the repopulation program. According to the proposed plan, the wolves’ territory would be restricted to the original land set aside for them. That means that any wolf found wandering outside would be captured and relocated. At the same time officials would consider other places in the U.S. to start wolf reintroduction programs in an attempt to double the wild population from its current 45 individuals, Fears reports.
But the plan has met stark resistance from conservationists. “They try to remove them non-lethally, but the fact of the matter is trapping wolves can, sometimes, lead to their death,” Jason Rylander, senior staff attorney for the conservation group Defenders of Wildlife, tells Rogers. “There was one trapped and released back on the national wildlife refuge, for example, but when you remove a wolf from its established territory, it takes time for it to find new territory. It started roaming off the refuge and continually crossing Highway 64. It was eventually run over by a car.”
Since the proposal was announced, Defenders of Wildlife joined several other nonprofit groups in taking FWS to court to stop the plan from being implemented. And so far, they’ve won a small victory. Earlier this week, U.S. District Judge Terrence Boyle said that unless FWS can prove that a wild wolf was endangering humans, pets or livestock, any removal is illegal, the Associated Press reports. Boyle also said that it appears the FWS’ handling of the program may have violated the Endangered Species Act by failing to provide adequate protection for the endangered wolves.
“Under this ruling they will not be able to remove nonproblem wolves from the wild,” Rylander tells the AP.
But what exactly should be done with the wolves remains up in the air. While relocation is out of the question as long as Boyle’s injunction stands, it could leave the wolves vulnerable to landowners and hunters who see them as pests. The red wolves may be staying in North Carolina, but they face an uncertain future.