Court orders injunction on harming, killing red wolves

By Emily Ronis

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On Sept. 28, a federal judge ordered the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to stop authorizing the harassment or killing of endangered red wolves (Canis rufus) without proof the wolf is a threat to people or property.

The Animal Welfare Institute, Defenders of Wildlife, and the Red Wolf Coalition filed suit against USFWS in Nov. 2015, arguing that the agency arbitrarily changed its interpretation of rules regulating red wolf management beginning in 2014. Plaintiffs claim that the resulting USFWS actions have led to an increase in authorized red wolf kills and ultimately fail to conserve to the wild red wolf population in North Carolina.

The lawsuit mainly cited a USFWS authorization of a landowner’s request to kill – or “take” – a wolf occupying private property in June 2015. A lethal take permit was issued after the landowner refused to allow USFWS to access the property to catch and relocate the wolf. The wolf killed was found to be a 6-year-old female with no history of threatening people or property.

USFWS says its actions were justified by a rule that provides for the capture of red wolves upon landowner request. Judge Terrence Boyle disagreed, writing in the injunction that the “provision clearly does not authorize a legal lethal take of a red wolf simply upon landowner request.”

Plaintiffs also referenced USFWS’ announcement in June 2015 that it would end red wolf reintroductions. They allege that negative pressure from the North Carolina Wildlife Commission and the community influenced the program’s termination and that red wolf population numbers have suffered as a result. In 2013, the wild red wolf population was estimated at 100 individuals; in May 2016, the population had fallen to an estimated 45-60 individuals.

Judge Boyle found that the “plaintiffs have sufficiently demonstrated that [USFWS]’s actions after 2014 in regard to management of the wild red wolf population fail to adequately provide for the protection of red wolves and may in fact jeopardize the population’s survival in the wild in violation of Sections 4 and 7 of the [Endangered Species Act].”

A preliminary injunction was filed, preventing USFWS from taking red wolves either directly or through landowner authorization without first proving the wolf in question threatens the safety of humans, livestock, or pets.

The injunction comes on the heels of an oversight hearing to discuss federal management of wolves across the nation. At the hearing, USFWS’ red wolf recovery program was highly criticized for failing to meet program objectives. Wolf management is becoming increasingly difficult as unregulated hunting, habitat loss, and predator control efforts remain ever-present threats to wolves across the country.

Emily Ronis is a Policy Communication Intern at The Wildlife Society. Read more of Emily's articles.