OCT 22, 2016 8:29 AM PDT

FWS and conservationists disagree over red wolf conservation management

A discrepancy between scientists and the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) may have red wolf populations, the most endangered wolf species, even more endangered.

Two captive red wolves frolic behind Pocosin Lakes National Wild Refuge Red Wolf Education and Health Care Facility in North Carolina. (Hyunsoo Leo Kim/Virginian-Pilot via AP)
According to Defenders of Wildlife, red wolves, found today only in a small corner of North Carolina, are urgently threatened. “Though the red wolf recovery program was once the model for wolf reintroductions across the U.S., the Fish and Wildlife Service has bowed to politics in recent years, all but abandoning the program, and causing the red wolf population to crash from 150 down to fewer than 45 wolves on the ground. Recently, FWS proposed a plan in which they would effectively doom red wolves to extinction in the wild, rounding up most of them up for capture to bring into captivity.”

So what’s the history of red wolf conservation? Red wolves used to be common all throughout the southeastern United States, but due to pressures from hunting and land development, they have been pushed to the brink of extinction. Thirty years ago FWS partnered with scientists and conservation groups to fulfill a wish by Congress to restore red wolves to at least a portion of their historic habitat in the southeast. A few wild wolves were bred with captive wolves at zoos, and a small population was set free at the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge. The Washington Post explains how the program was considered a success until the population started to decline around 2010. Conflicts arose with landowners who considered wolves a threat. Although the wolves were protected, the state allowed hunters to shoot coyotes, leading to wolves being shot dead by hunters who claimed they made a mistake. Funding for the program was cut, and some of its managers quit or accepted reassignments.

But two months ago the Obama administration announced a red wolf conservation program that would aim to resurrect the population. In the hands of FWS, the program had supposedly obtained “the best available science” to assess the state of red wolves it managed in captivity and in eastern North Carolina, and the science showed that their genetic purity would be lost unless most of the wild wolves were captured and paired with those in zoos. Such capture is exactly what FWS’s management plan entails.

However, according to conservationists, the “best available science” shows exactly the opposite of this plan: the genetic purity of red wolves in captivity is not at risk, said Lisa Faust, the author of the research and vice president of conservation and science at Chicago’s Lincoln Park Zoo. Furthermore, contrary to FWS’s assessment, there is no danger of red wolves going extinct under the current management plan.
Red wolves at federal recovery program site at the Museum Life and Science in Durham, N.C. (B. Bartel/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)
“It was frustrating to me that they used the science this way,” Faust said. “We knew we needed to respond right away. I think that certainly the people in [captive breeding] were proud of that program, which is extremely well managed. We hold it up as a flagship restoration program.”

Jeff Fleming, a spokesman for Fish and Wildlife’s southeast region, characterized the discrepancy as different interpretations of the science Faust and her team submitted. “We appreciate the feedback,” he said. Fish and Wildlife says it believes that the genetic purity of the wolves needs to be higher than the marker determined by the research. “We’re going to move forward,” Fleming said, and “this will be taken into account as we move forward” with a process that could take more than a year to complete and implement. “I don’t know if it’s a disagreement.”

A disagreement it clearly is. “The science — many of us looked at it — was fairly clear. We were astonished that they saw that the captive population was in dire straits,” said Ben Prater, southeast program director for Defenders of Wildlife. “I think to have claimed that the captive population was somehow in trouble flies in the face of the work done by the species survival program over the last 30 years. This was an award-winning program. Their mandates are based on science, and it’s very disappointing to see this misinterpretation.”

Some, like Ron Sutherland of the Wildlands Network, another nonprofit conservation group that observes red wolves, think that FWS is bending toward politics instead of science. “I think the most likely scenario is they wanted to go on the retreat for political reasons and budget reasons, and they needed some gauze of credibility, so they said the captive population was at risk of extinction,” Sutherland said. “But the report said exactly the opposite.”

Source: The Washington Post, Defenders of Wildlife
About the Author
Bachelor's (BA/BS/Other)
Kathryn is a curious world-traveller interested in the intersection between nature, culture, history, and people. She has worked for environmental education non-profits and is a Spanish/English interpreter.
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