Are North Carolina’s red wolves a real species? The answer could doom them

July 31, 2018

The Charlotte Observer

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Changes to the Endangered Species Act proposed by the Trump administration could end federal protection of the three dozen remaining red wolves in North Carolina, wildlife advocates say.

Among their many changes, the proposals announced last week would let federal authorities consider economic impacts in deciding whether to add or remove species from the endangered and threatened lists. The proposals were among recent attacks on the 1973 law “on a scale not seen in decades,” according to The New York Times.

But another provision seems aimed squarely at the red wolf: Is it a distinct species or, as critics in North Carolina have long contended, a hybrid of gray wolves and coyotes?

The administration’s proposal says species already on the endangered list can be removed if new information or analysis shows they aren’t a “valid taxonomic entity.” A study of the red wolf is already underway.

In March, Congress ordered the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to get an independent analysis of whether red wolves and Mexican gray wolves are real species and subspecies, respectively. The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine will name an expert panel to review scientific literature and report back next March.

Ron Sutherland, a Durham-based conservation scientist with the Wildlands Network, said the species provision echoes past comments by wolf critics. At the urging of U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., a Senate committee last fall asked the Fish and Wildlife Service to end the 32-year effort to save red wolves in the wild.

The Trump administration’s proposal “seems much more politically motivated and targeted toward the red wolf and other species that have been attacked by industry groups,” Sutherland said. “I would agree that the (act) needs to be updated to reflect complicated genetic realities, but the people doing the revisions shouldn’t be the ones talking for decades about getting rid of the act.”

Red wolves were listed as endangered in 1967, before the act was adopted, and declared extinct in the wild in 1980. In 1986, the federal agency started an experiment to recover them by releasing captive-raised wolves into North Carolina’s coastal Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge.

Their numbers peaked at 120 to 130 in 2006 but have dropped sharply since then, largely because of shootings. About 35 wolves now roam a five-county area, but private landowners have complained about them. Last month the Fish and Wildlife Service proposed allowing wolves that are outside federal land to be killed.

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