AWI Returns to Court to Resuscitate Red Wolf Recovery Program

In November, AWI and allies sued the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) for violating the Endangered Species Act (ESA) by grossly mismanaging the wild red wolf population in North Carolina. The red wolf once roamed the eastern and southcentral United States. Now, however, it is the most endangered canid in the world, and one of the rarest mammals, due to predator control programs, habitat degradation, killing by hunters, and, most recently, the abandonment of the Red Wolf Recovery Program by the USFWS. Scientists have warned that if current management practices continue, red wolves could be extinct in the wild by 2024.

photo by ADK91
photo by ADK91

The red wolf was first declared extinct in the wild in 1980. In 1987, in an effort to revive the species, 12 red wolves from the captive population were reintroduced into eastern North Carolina. The reintroduction proved to be a success—so much so that the USFWS once called it a model for predator reintroductions. Between 2002 and 2014, the population consistently numbered over 100 wolves. 

In 2013, however, the recovery program was transferred from the jurisdiction of the National Wildlife Refuge System to the Ecological Services Program, and decision-making shifted from red wolf biologists to administrative staff in Atlanta. Program priorities shifted as well—toward appeasement of landowners hostile to the recovery program. The agency began issuing permits allowing landowners to indiscriminately kill red wolves on private land. It also suspended further releases of captive wolves into the wild and stopped sterilizing coyotes in the region to prevent hybridization. In 2018, the USFWS announced plans to shrink the recovery area by 90 percent.

As the USFWS pulled back its protections and reintroduction efforts, the population began to dwindle. By 2015, there were 75 or fewer red wolves in the recovery area. By 2016, the population was under 50. By 2019, it had dropped to fewer than 18, and that year, for the first time in the reintroduction program’s history, no pups were born. In 2020, again, no wild red wolves produced litters. The population has now fallen to only seven collared animals. 

The USFWS’s decision to bar releases from the captive population was based on a novel interpretation of the red wolf 10(j) rule. In support of the ESA’s command to conserve and recover species in the wild, section 10(j) of the ESA authorizes the USFWS to reintroduce populations of threatened and endangered species within their historic range. Pursuant to section 10(j), and from the beginning of the red wolf reintroduction program in 1987, the USFWS managed the wild population with the understanding that captive releases were essential for the recovery of the species. From 1987 through 2014, the USFWS released 134 red wolves into the recovery area.

However, after temporarily halting releases from captivity in 2015, the USFWS adopted the position around 2018 that the red wolf 10(j) rule did not authorize the release of captive wolves into the wild beyond the first 12 released in 1987. This interpretation represents a significant departure from the USFWS’s former understanding and longstanding practice of releasing captive-born red wolves into the wild on an ongoing basis for over 25 years after the initial 1987 releases. 

AWI’s lawsuit seeks to require the USFWS to reverse this new interpretation of the red wolf 10(j) rule. The complaint alleges the agency is violating the ESA by failing to use its authority to further red wolf recovery and failing to insure that its actions are not likely to jeopardize the continued existence of the red wolf. The ESA requires the USFWS to promote red wolf recovery by carrying out programs for the conservation of the species, which the agency is not currently doing. The ESA also obligates federal agencies to insure that any actions they authorize, fund, or carry out are not likely to jeopardize the continued existence of any threatened or endangered species. The USFWS’s decision to stop releasing captive red wolves, by its own admission, will jeopardize the species’ continued existence unless it begins implementing conservation measures again. 

The new red wolf 10(j) rule interpretation also violates the Administrative Procedure Act because it departs from the agency’s past practice without adequate explanation. Public records indicate the USFWS acknowledges that captive releases are vital to the genetic health and viability of the wild population. The agency has no plausible explanation for how it can continue to fulfill its mission of recovering the red wolf without releasing captive wolves. Even key staff overseeing the wild population were at a loss for how to explain the new stance. 

AWI has a long and successful history of fighting to protect red wolves. This is the fourth lawsuit AWI and allies have filed since 2012 to protect the species. The first and second actions, initiated in 2012 and 2013, were brought against the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission, challenging its decision to allow coyote hunting in areas occupied by red wolves, who are easily mistaken for coyotes. The 2012 case was resolved in our favor, and the 2013 case resulted in an agreement that banned coyote hunting at night throughout the recovery area and during the day on public lands in the area, and required the issuance of permits before coyotes could be killed on private lands. 

The third lawsuit, initiated in 2015, was brought against the USFWS for issuing permits that allowed landowners to kill any red wolf on their private land—regardless of whether the wolves were actually causing trouble—and for discontinuing programs vital to maintaining the red wolf population. In 2018, the court held that the USFWS violated the ESA and prevented the agency from issuing additional permits to kill red wolves without first demonstrating the wolves are a threat to the safety of humans, livestock, or pets. The court also ruled that the USFWS failed to administer the red wolf program in furtherance of the purposes of the ESA and was likely jeopardizing the continued existence of the species. 

By challenging the USFWS’s abandonment of proven conservation measures, AWI is continuing our fight to ensure that these beautiful animals remain on the landscape in a healthy and functioning population.