Government study: Red wolves a unique species, not coyote hybrid

About 14 red wolves live in the wild today, all of them in coastal North Carolina. [Photo courtesy Red Wolf Recovery Program]

A new government study released Thursday finds red wolves are a unique species – not coyote/gray wolf hybrids – a potential boost for conservation efforts in eastern North Carolina, where the only remaining wild red wolves live.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service commissioned the survey, undertaken by nine-member panel at the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine. The panel based its findings on DNA, behavior and size.

The red wolf once roamed much of the southeastern United States, but was declared extinct in 1980, edged out by predator control programs, gray wolves and coyotes. Fourteen remaining red wolves were captured in Texas and Louisiana before the extinction declaration and were used to establish a breeding program.

In 1987, a few mated pairs were released as an experiment in reintroduction at the Alligator River Wildlife Refuge. That experiment grew to a population of more than 100 red wolves covering five eastern North Carolina counties, including Dare and Hyde.

But in recent years, a “vocal group of landowners pushed the government to abandon recovery efforts, arguing the animal is a coyote hybrid,” according to the Associated Press.

In 2015, the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission asked the federal government to end the red wolf conservation program and began removing some protections for the endangered canines. Last year, the federal government considered a proposal to reduce the conservation area to just Dare and Hyde counties.

Red wolf conservation area proposal

“The completion of this report has occurred at the same time as the USFWS has taken steps to roll back protections for red wolves in the wild,” the Southern Environmental Law Center said in a news release. “On November 4, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina issued an order declaring that the agency violated the law in gutting protections for the endangered wild red wolves in recent years.

“The court also made permanent its September 29, 2016, order stopping the service from capturing and killing, and authorizing private landowners to capture and kill wild red wolves not posing a threat to human safety or property.”

Today only about two dozen red wolves remain in the wild, all of them in areas surrounding the Alligator River Wildlife Refuge. About 200 more are part of captive breeding and conservation programs.

“A majority of experts on red wolf taxonomy have concluded, time and time again, that the red wolf represents a unique lineage that is worthy of conservation and should remain a listable entity under the ESA,” Maggie Howell, Wolf Conservation Center Executive Director said in a news release. “No longer plagued by questions of taxonomy, USFWS needs to re-evaluate its recent decisions and management changes and bring its efforts back in line with the conservation mandate of the ESA.

“Today’s findings give USFWS no excuse to further delay its recommitment to recovering the red wolf within the current five-county Red Wolf Recovery Area in North Carolina.”

The Associated Press said U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service spokeswoman Laury Parramore declined to comment on the agency-funded study beyond a statement saying it was under review.

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