Settlement Secures Red Wolf Conservation

For more than a decade, the legal advocacy of AWI and allies has helped ensure the continued existence of red wolves in the wild. This year, that work culminated in a historic settlement with the US Fish and Wildlife Service in which the federal agency firmly recommitted to the conservation and recovery of the world’s only wild red wolf population, in eastern North Carolina.

photo by karel
photo by karel

In the settlement, which resolves a lawsuit filed by our coalition in November 2020, the USFWS stated its intention to implement adaptive management strategies, prepare captive wolves for release, reduce human-caused mortality, and engage with community members and stakeholders. The settlement requires the agency to develop annual plans for release of captive wolves and provide annual briefings regarding coyote management efforts for a period of eight years. The first release plan, developed pursuant to the settlement agreement, anticipates the release of between four and six captive wolves, along with pup fostering (adding captive-born pups to wild-born litters), through June 2024.

The red wolf is the only wolf native solely to this country, earning it the moniker “America’s wolf.” They once roamed across the eastern and southcentral United States. After decades of persecution and habitat loss, however, the species was declared extinct in the wild in 1980. Only a small captive population remained.

Section 10(j) of the Endangered Species Act authorizes the USFWS to reintroduce populations of threatened and endangered species within their historic range. This includes red wolves—among the first animals listed as endangered under the law. In 1987, in an effort to revive the species, the USFWS released 12 red wolves from the captive population into a designated Red Wolf Recovery Area in eastern North Carolina, and continued to release wolves thereafter. The reintroduction program proved to be a success—so much so that the USFWS called it a model for predator reintroductions. Between 2002 and 2014, the wild population consistently numbered over 100 wolves.

Recovery efforts faltered, however, in 2015. That year, the USFWS suspended its long-standing and successful practice of releasing captive wolves, stopped sterilizing coyotes in the region to prevent hybridization, and began issuing permits allowing wolves to be killed by landowners. By the end of that year, no more than 75 red wolves remained in the recovery area. By the following year, the population had dropped below 50. By 2019, fewer than 18 were left. That year, for the first time in the reintroduction program’s history, no pups were born in the wild—nor any the next year. By the time AWI and allies filed our lawsuit, only seven collared animals remained.

Around 2018, the USFWS asserted that the species’ 1995 “10(j) rule” permitted only the initial 1987 release of 12 captive wolves into the wild. This novel interpretation stood in polar opposition to the agency’s former expressed understanding of the rule and its practice in the field for over 25 years. We alleged in our lawsuit that this reversal violated the ESA, which requires the USFWS to actively pursue red wolf conservation and recovery, and which obligates all federal agencies to ensure that actions they authorize, fund, or carry out are not likely to jeopardize the continued existence of any threatened or endangered species. By the USFWS’s own admission, its decision to stop releasing captive red wolves jeopardized the species’ continued existence. Scientists warned that the agency’s recent management practices could lead once again to extinction in the wild by 2024.

The lawsuit also asserted that this novel rule interpretation violated the Administrative Procedure Act because it departed—without adequate explanation—from the agency’s past practice of releasing red wolves. Public records showed that the USFWS acknowledged captive releases are vital to the genetic health and viability of the wild population, and the agency provided no plausible explanation for how it could continue to fulfill its mission of recovering the red wolf without releasing red wolves from captivity.

In January 2021, we won a preliminary injunction ordering the USFWS to draft and execute a plan to resume releasing captive red wolves to bolster the plunging wild population. Specific performance metrics were required to ensure a meaningful number of releases within a timeframe that would restart recovery. Pursuant to this order, the USFWS developed a series of three plans that provided for the release of captive individual adults and family groups and for the resumption of pup fostering. Subsequent releases have pushed the estimated wild population back over 20, and wild litters were born in 2021 and 2022 after a two-year absence.

This is the fourth successful lawsuit AWI and allies have filed since 2012 on behalf of red wolves. 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, which 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 to kill coyotes on private lands.

We again sued the USFWS in 2015 for issuing permits that allowed private landowners to kill any red wolf on their land—regardless of whether the wolf was causing trouble—and for discontinuing programs vital to maintaining the red wolf population. In 2018, the court held that this 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 had failed to administer the red wolf program in furtherance of the purposes of the ESA and was likely to jeopardize the continued existence of the species. 

This latest settlement represents a fundamental reset. It signals a durable commitment from the USFWS to recover red wolves in the wild, and a return to a management approach once heralded as a model for reintroduction efforts. Ideally, it will usher in a new era in our red wolf advocacy—a shift from litigation to collaboration and education to ensure that the species recovers and thrives. We hope that with this settlement in place, the howls of America’s wolf will be heard on the landscape for generations to come—a lasting legacy of AWI’s efforts to protect one of the world’s rarest animals.