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US wildlife officials have failed the world's last red wolves, judge rules

A shrinking population of red wolves in North Carolina warrant USFWS protection, argue environmentalists, with the number of individuals declining from 100 to just 45 in the past two years.

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A female red wolf is shown in its habitat at the Museum of Life and Science in Durham, N.C., Jan. 13, 2015.

Gerry Broome/AP

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The US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) is an agency of the federal government, charged with protecting wildlife, fish, plants, and their habitats “for the continuing benefit of the American people.”

But the FWS may not be fulfilling this duty for a shrinking population of red wolves in North Carolina, a federal judge ruled Thursday, with the number of individuals declining from 100 to just 45 in the past two years. Protection is especially important, environmental advocates say, considering that these individuals make up the only remaining red wolf population in the world.

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A number of environmental organizations recently took the agency to court, arguing that not only has the FWS failed to protect the wolves, but they are also responsible for actively depleting the population. Environmentalists argue that the FWS has given up on wild red wolves, choosing instead to focus efforts on captivity and authorizing private landowners to kill any wolves on their land.  

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“The US Fish and Wildlife Service is responsible for the protection of endangered wildlife and the habitats where they live, but the agency seems to have red wolves on a path towards extinction in the wild and captivity,” says Sierra Weaver, senior attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center, in a press release.

“Without this court order, there wasn’t going to be any wild population left for the court and the American public to save. We’re grateful to the court for stepping in and giving the wild red wolves a chance to survive when the agency would not.”

The US District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina sided with the Defenders of Wildlife, the Animal Welfare Institute, the Red Wolf Coalition and the Southern Environmental Law Center Thursday, issuing a preliminary injunction against the agency. Until the trial, FWS officials will be prohibited from removing red wolves from any property, unless they prove to be a threat to nearby humans or livestock. 

Earlier this month the FWS announced that it would focus on increasing the population of red wolves in US zoos even at the expense of populations in the wild. The agency hopes to boost the captured red wolf population to 400, a move that would require moving the majority of the remaining wild red wolf population into zoos across the country.

“We are pleased the court recognized that allowing the US Fish & Wildlife Service to issue lethal and non-lethal permits for the removal of red wolves from the wild, as a pathway to extinction, not recovery,” Red Wolf Coalition executive director Kim Wheeler says in a press release.

But FWS has defended its actions. 

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The agency argues that these captive breeding programs “may be their only chance to survive,” and credits their captive breeding program with bringing the red wolf population back from near extinction in the 1980s. In addition, the agency says that zoos can benefit red wolf recovery by informing visitors about the wolves’ important role in local ecosystem. And as for the wolf killings on private property, USFWS also says it has done nothing wrong. They say that each removal was thoroughly reviewed and lethal means were only pursued if necessary. 

However, US District Judge Terrence Boyle, who issued the preliminary injunction Thursday, says he suspects the team of conservation groups will likely prove that the agency’s actions have violated the Endangered Species Act.

This report contains material from the Associated Press.