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Conservationists file suit to demand stronger protections for world's last wild red wolves

A red wolf with pointy ears looks at the camera with yellow eyes. Its coat is reddish brown, white, and black.
B. Bartel
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
The red wolf is the world's most endangered wolf species. The only wild population is in North Carolina, with just 13 known individuals.

An environmental group has sued the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service over its classification of red wolves. The world's only wild population of the species live in North Carolina.

Conservationists have filed an Endangered Species Act lawsuit this week against the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in an effort to protect the world's rarest wolf species, the red wolf.

In 2016, the Center for Biological Diversity petitioned the Fish and Wildlife Service to classify North Carolina’s red wolf population as an “essential” one, which would grant the species more protections. The Fish and Wildlife Service denied that petition earlier this year, which the lawsuit filed this week aims to challenge.

Red wolves are considered endangered under the Endangered Species Act of 1973. The Center for Biological Diversity’s attorney Perrin de Jong said there are fewer than 300 red wolves left nationwide. Most are in captive breeding facilities, with the only wild population being the small number in North Carolina.

Full body photo of an adult red wolf standing on a rock with trees in the background
Rebecca Harrison
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
The historic range of the red wolf spanned most of the southeastern US. Today, the species only exists in the wild in five NC counties.

“There are 13 known, confirmed, collared red wolves that the agency can confirm are alive today,” de Jong said. “They had reached a low of eight red wolves confirmed to be surviving in the wild not so many months ago. So, sadly, having 13 confirmed red wolves in the wild is actually progress for this species.”

North Carolina’s red wolf population was established by introducing captive wolves to the area in the late 1980s. The Fish and Wildlife Service labeled that reintroduced group as “nonessential.”

According to the federal agency's handbook, a “nonessential” designation means that if a reintroduced population were wiped out, it would have little effect on the species' survival in the wild. De Jong argued that since North Carolina’s red wolf population has the only wild individuals in the world, its loss would eliminate the species in the wild and therefore, it should receive the "essential" designation.

“When another federal agency wants to destroy the habitat and possibly harm red wolves, they currently do have to confer with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service,” de Jong said. “But, the terms that come out of that conference are not binding. If the population was designated as 'essential,' on the other hand, they would be bound to specific protective requirements.”

A January letter from the Fish and Wildlife Service told the Center its petition for reclassification was denied. This was partly due to the flexibility in managing the species that a 'nonessential' classification allows:

“Management flexibilities that result from the non-essential determination are instrumental to support of the red wolf program and ultimately red wolf recovery. These provisions were necessary to obtain public support for attempts to reintroduce red wolves and were, therefore, an essential ingredient in reestablishment of the species. Prior to these provisions, attempts to reintroduce red wolves and other endangered species, particularly predators, were routinely unsuccessful because of local opposition. However, the use of the term ‘nonessential’ should not be misconstrued as indicating a lack of value of the North Carolina population of red wolves.”

“The Endangered Species Act doesn't allow the Service to take their own convenience into consideration," de Jong said. "The definition is very clear cut."

The agency released its updated Red Wolf Recovery Plan last week, which included plans to establish new red wolf populations, with set locations yet to be determined. When asked for a response regarding the current lawsuit, a spokesperson for the Fish and Wildlife Service said the agency does not comment on litigation.

De Jong said the goal of the lawsuit is to ensure that red wolves will not just survive, but thrive.

“They're complex, highly intelligent, highly social creatures — and they’re also shy,” de Jong said. “It's a really magnificent, beautiful animal that has a winning personality. It defies the stereotype of the Big Bad Wolf.”

De Jong added that red wolves play a critical role in the ecosystem, keeping pest and coyote numbers under control.

Sophie Mallinson is a daily news intern with WUNC for summer 2023. She is a recent graduate from UNC-Chapel Hill, where she studied journalism. Sophie is from Greenville, N.C., but she enjoys the new experiences of the Triangle area. During her time as a Tar Heel, Sophie was a reporter and producer for Carolina Connection, UNC-Chapel Hill’s radio program. She currently is heavily involved in science education at Morehead Planetarium and Science Center.