Court says USFWS violated law in red wolf management

A federal district court has ruled the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service violated both the Endangered Species Act and the National Environmental Policy Act in its management of the red wolf (Canis rufus) in North Carolina in recent years.

Red wolves were listed as endangered in 1967 and declared extinct in the wild in 1980. In 1987, the USFWS released eight captive-bred red wolves at the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge in North Carolina, as a nonessential experimental population under section 10(j) of the ESA. Designating a population as “nonessential, experimental” provides the Service flexibility in the species’ management, while still furthering the conservation of the species. The wild population of red wolves is currently around 35 individuals, with 200 more in captivity.

The Service developed guidance in 1995 to help manage the species in the context of concerns raised by private landowners in the region. The guidance delineated “problem” and “non-problem” wolves and described how each should be managed to help alleviate conflicts between the wolves and private landowners. In 2015 the Service updated this guidance, stating that landowners could receive take authorizations when wolves return to their property or efforts to trap are unsuccessful. The updated guidance did not distinguish between problem and non-problem wolves.

The red wolf population peaked in 2006 at 120 to 130 individuals, but it started to drop sharply several years ago, partly as a result of human-caused mortality. In 2015 the USFWS announced  it would no longer reintroduce red wolves into the wild and would work with landowners to relocated wolves currently on private property to federally managed lands. This decision came shortly after the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission called on the Service to end the red wolf reintroduction project and remove all wolves that had been released on private property.

Prompted by the Service’s decision to halt reintroductions, Defenders of Wildlife, the Red Wolf Coalition and the Animal Welfare Institute filed suit against the USFWS arguing the agency had jeopardized the survival of the red wolf. A preliminary injunction was issued in 2016, preventing the Service from lethally taking, or authorizing the taking of, any non-problem wolves.

Earlier this year, the Service completed a review of the red wolf recovery efforts and recommended that, given the small — and declining — population size, the wolves’ status under the ESA should not change. It also proposed a new management plan that would focus management efforts on public land and remove wolves from private land.

The court considered these policy changes in rendering its most recent decision and found the Service’s management of the red wolves is failing to meet its obligations under the ESA to promote the conservation of the species. The court determined the Service issued two authorizations to private landowners to take red wolves on their property in violation of the 10(j) rule. The court also found that the Service’s action since 2014, including halting reintroductions, ceasing pup-fostering, no longer distinguishing between problem and nonproblem wolves, and failing to manage coyote populations, were issued in violation of the ESA and of NEPA.

Judge Boyle’s ruling makes the 2016 injunction permanent, and unless the court’s decision is appealed or the Service issues updated regulations, it cannot kill or authorize any take of red wolves unless it has first demonstrated that the wolves are a threat to human safety, livestock or pets.

Header Image: A federal judge ruled that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has issued its management decision in violation of Endangered Species Act requirements. ©USFWS