The Red Wolf’s Greatest Threat? It’s Not Poison

Recently, the US Fish and Wildlife Service notified the public that a red wolf was poisoned in January. This is a tragic blow, but unfortunately, not the greatest threat to red wolves.

Red wolves, a species that should be considered an American icon, are facing extinction in the wild for a second time. This wolf is the only species that resides purely within the boundaries of the United States.  Like gray wolves, red wolves faced mass extermination in the 19th century due to human development and misconceptions.  In 1980, red wolves were declared extinct in the wild, with only a small population left in captivity to prevent complete extinction. In an effort to restore this species to a portion of its historic range, a small population of red wolves was released within North Carolina’s Alligator Wildlife Refuge in 1987.  The experimental population increased in size and range for about thirty years, with this recovery effort critically acclaimed for being a model of success for reintroducing an endangered species to the wild.

However, over the last few years, the population size has dropped more than 50%, leaving less than 45 red wolves in the wild. The population is suffering under the very department tasked with recovering this animal. In 2013, The Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) began facing pressure from the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission, a few landowners opposed to red wolves, and regional representatives of the Fish and Wildlife Service based out of Atlanta, Georgia.  This led the agency to strip control of the recovery program from the scientists who led the successful effort. The FWS also reassigned the lead scientist and abandoned adaptive management practices such as coyote sterilization and pup fostering. Along with all this, they neglected to firmly enforce poaching regulations to the extent that red wolves could be shot or removed from property without persecution.

Not only have adaptive management strategies been abandoned and the team of recovery scientists been disbanded, the Fish and Wildlife Service has also proposed shrinking the current range of the red wolves by almost 90 percent and removing all but one pack of red wolves from the wild.  They are claiming that captive populations need the genetic diversity and the only way to save the species is to bring back the wild wolves into captivity.  The Fish and Wildlife Service referenced scientific work when making this argument, but the scientists who published this research came forward and publicly denounced the proposal, saying it was based on “alarming misinterpretations” and would “no doubt result in extinction of red wolves in the wild.”  The red wolf has already lost more than 99% of its historical range, more than lions, tigers, and snow leopards.

If Fish and Wildlife follows through with its proposal, we can be sure to lose the last remaining wild red wolves, once and for all. Stand for red wolves by submitting comments to a public comment period for the Fish and Wildlife Service until July 24th and by signing a Defenders of Wildlife petition.  Learn more by watching this video.


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