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More endangered red wolves will be released in the U.S. under a legal settlement

A female red wolf is shown in its habitat at the Museum of Life and Science in Durham, N.C.
Gerry Broome
A female red wolf is shown in its habitat at the Museum of Life and Science in Durham, N.C.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has agreed to continue releasing red wolves into the wild in order to settle a lawsuit brought by conservation groups.

According to court filings, the USFWS committed on Wednesday to an eight-year plan to boost populations with captive-born animals in eastern North Carolina, the species' only remaining range. Just over 30 of the animals are estimated to be left in the wild, which is only a fraction of what the population was a decade ago.

The Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC) filed the lawsuit on behalf of the Red Wolf Coalition, Defenders of Wildlife and the Animal Welfare Institute. The groups claimed that USFWS had violated the Endangered Species Act, putting red wolves at risk of extinction to appease politicians and ranchers.

Ramona McGee, a senior attorney and leader of the SELC's wildlife program, celebrated the settlement as a "path to restoring the red wolf to its rightful place as a celebrated success story."

"We hope to see America's wild red wolves rebound again, with generations born free and wild, as a result of this agreement," McGee said in a statement Wednesday.

A spokesperson for USFWS responded to NPR's request for comment by saying the agency had already been working to recover the red wolf population for decades.

"We are committed to increasing transparency and communication for red wolf releases and adaptive management actions," USFWS said. "The success of the Eastern North Carolina Red Wolf Population sets the stage for the Service's ability to fulfill our responsibility to recover the species — which we cannot do without the local community and our conservation partners."

Red wolves once inhabited much of the Eastern U.S. but were driven to near-extinction by hunting, habitat loss and the growth of local coyote species, which competed for resources and space.

Today, red wolves occupy only five counties in North Carolina. Just over 30 are left in the wild, according to a June 2023 count.

A USFWS program to recover the species to the wild was launched in 1987 and successfully boosted the population to around 100. That population remained stable through 2012.

But in 2015, the agency suspended its practice of breeding and releasing captive red wolves, saying it had planned to update its recovery program with more input from scientists and resume in 2020.

The Associated Press reported that the timing of the pause coincided with "pressure from conservative politicians and landowners who deemed wolves a nuisance."

Another round of litigation in 2018 blocked the USFWS from a plan to shrink the 1.7 million-acre territory set aside for red wolf conservation.

The SELC filed its lawsuit in 2020, amid a three-year span in which no red wolf pups had been seen in the wild — "an indication of the dire state of the red wolf population at that time."

As few as seven red wolves remained in the wild at the time, according to court filings. Another 250 were estimated to be living in zoos and wildlife sanctuaries as part of the captive-breeding program.

In 2021, a judge granted SELC a preliminary injunction requiring the USFWS to resume releasing some of those captive red wolves, including by placing captive-born pups into wild litters.

Of the three wolves released to the wild in 2021, one was found dead within months, falling victim to a vehicle strike, according to SELC. But the surviving wolves may have played a role in the current population upswing: Wild red wolf pups were seen in the wild again in 2022.

Under the latest settlement, the USFWS will work with scientists and experts to set metrics to measure performance on all red wolf recovery plans.

In addition to releasing captive wolves, the agency will continue its adaptive management strategies, aiming to decrease human-caused mortality, as well as sterilizing some local coyote populations.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Emily Olson
Emily Olson is on a three-month assignment as a news writer and live blog editor, helping shape NPR's digital breaking news strategy.