Red Wolf, ©USFWS/John and Karen Hollingsworth-Red Wolf-North Carolina

What’s in Store for the Red Wolf

A new report, a recent victory, and the long road ahead

Back in August, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) asked the Wildlife Management Institute (WMI) to evaluate their red wolf program. Started in 1987, the Red Wolf Recovery Program began with a few captive red wolves released into the wild in the newly-created Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge. It’s been nearly three decades since that release, and three months since WMI began their evaluation. And while three months is not nearly enough time for an in-depth study of any endangered species recovery program, the report does make some useful points about how FWS could better serve the red wolf; points that, in fact, Defenders has been making for some time now.

WMI based its report around three main themes: what the science says, how the program is being managed and human dimensions. So what are the results? WMI said that overall the program is viable but could be improved in a number of ways.

First, the red wolf recovery plan—the blueprint for running the program—is badly in need of an update. Second, FWS needs to thoroughly analyze how it prevents cross-breeding between red wolves and coyotes (one of the greatest threats to the species) to make sure their current methods are working. And third, the report stated in no uncertain terms that red wolves need much more habitat than FWS had originally estimated to build a thriving, viable population.Red Wolf, ©B. Bartel/USFWS

These are all issues we’ve raised in the past in our work to help protect the red wolf and its precarious foothold on the path to recovery. WMI also pointed out that the local staff working on red wolf recovery needs more support and resources from the FWS regional. FWS and the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission (NCWRC) also need to communicate better with local residents about red wolves and the program’s goals.

This report comes on the heels of a big victory for red wolves: Defenders of Wildlife and our conservation allies successfully settled with NCWRC to put a stop to night hunting of coyotes in red wolf habitat. An alarming number of red wolves were being mistaken for coyotes and killed. This is particularly distressing since only about 100 individuals live in the Red Wolf Recovery Area today. When night coyote hunting was first allowed back in 2012, there were about 120 wild red wolves. The population dropped in part due to accidental shootings. With so few individuals, each loss is truly a tragedy, making this settlement agreement a big step towards securing the future of the red wolf.

It’s clear from WMI’s report that the red wolf program has done good work. It has accomplished a great feat by re-introducing red wolves into the wild and building a population from just a few wolves. That said, the job isn’t done. The recovery program can and should be updated and improved. But before any decisions are made, FWS needs to perform a more thorough, detailed review of the red wolf’s status and what this species needs to thrive.

Red wolves clearly have a long road ahead of them, and need a lot more help from these agencies and conservation advocates like Defenders. Fortunately, WMI’s report offers some insight on the way forward. And our recent settlement reducing the threat of gunshot death should make the path to recovery a little easier to travel. All in all, a great way to close out 2014.

Haley McKey is a Communications Associate at Defenders of Wildlife