There are fewer than 60 red wolves left in the wild, and they all live in a five-county range in North Carolina. Some consider this a major success because these predators were once extinct in the wild. But others see the wolf restoration as a failure and a nuisance. In reality, North Carolina's red wolves are a bit of both.
Over the last few years, the US Fish and Wildlife Service and nonprofit conservation groups have disagreed on how to move forward. FWS wants to reel in the program and start over. The conservation groups want to maintain and grow the world's only wild population of red wolves. Both options have risks, and they're at such odds that the conservation groups took the feds to court.
The stakes are high when you're gambling with the last of a species, and the red wolf recovery program shows that when you don't get it right the first time, it puts already endangered animals' lives at even more risk.
Habitat loss and hunting originally put the red wolf at risk in the 60s, and by 1980 the species was officially declared extinct in the wild. The 17 remaining red wolves authorities could find in the wild were rounded up and put in captivity to establish a breeding program. Since 1987, FWS has been releasing captive-bred red wolves back into the wild, but a review of the program commissioned by the agency in 2014 highlighted a number of problems with how it was run.
The reintroduced population was intended to stay in federal wildlife refuges, but wolves aren't very keen on borders and immediately began to spread to private property. Wolves tend to scare away deer and other prey, which makes them an unwelcome sight for the area's large hunting population.
"We didn't do some things quite right," said Jeff Fleming, the assistant regional director of external affairs for FWS's southeast region. "We weren't always as responsive as we should have been to landowners who had concerns about a red wolf on their property."
At that point, FWS became more quick to relocate unwanted wolves on private property. This spurred conservation groups to come together and file litigation claiming FWS was violating the Endangered Species Act by relocating so many wolves, and putting the species at risk.
"They try to remove them non-lethally, but the fact of the matter is trapping wolves can, sometimes, lead to their death," said Jason Rylander, the senior staff attorney for Defenders of Wildlife, one of the groups that took FWS to court. "There was one trapped and released back on the national wildlife refuge, for example, but when you remove a wolf from its established territory, it takes time for it to find new territory. It started roaming off the refuge and continually crossing Highway 64. It was eventually run over by a car."
Earlier this month, FWS announced significant changes it had planned for the red wolf program, to be finalized after a public consultation period. First and foremost, it wanted to increase the captive population to a sustainable level—to keep the captive population alive, FWS needs to double the number of wolves, including at least 52 breeding pairs. It also wanted to identify other locations in the US where wild populations could be reintroduced. Most significantly, it planned to reel in the North Carolina wolves, and limit their territory to only within the National Wildlife Refuges where they were originally supposed to roam. Any wolves that left would be captured and returned. But under this new court order, that last objective would be illegal.
So we're officially at a stalemate, with two conflicting views on how to best protect these wolves from disappearing. The FWS wants to start over, in a sense, while the conservation groups want to just let the remaining wild wolves be. Both are risky moves: leaving the wolves puts them at risk from unappreciative private citizens, while relocating them puts them at risk of injury or death from the interference.
As the court case moves forward, the red wolf's future will be decided. There are no easy answers when the world's only wild population of a species in the balance.
Get six of our favorite Motherboard stories every day by signing up for our newsletter.