Chapel Hill Office of Regional Environmental Group Secures Major Settlement for Red Wolf Recovery

photo courtesy of WNNC Nature Center.


By Gregory DL Morris

Early in August the Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC), working primarily out of its Chapel Hill office, won a landmark settlement with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS) that breathes new life into the Red Wolf Recovery Program. Red wolves were once widespread across the Southeast but were hunted nearly to extinction and are now sustained in only a small area in eastern North Carolina.

The agreement, filed with the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina, resolves a 2020 lawsuit on behalf of the Red Wolf Coalition, Defenders of Wildlife, and the Animal Welfare Institute.

TLR readers can see a breeding pack of red wolves in a natural enclosure and learn more about the species and restoration efforts nearby at the Museum of Life & Science in Durham.

While not an official party to the settlement, the North Carolina Wildlife Federation supports red wolf recovery through its program to collaborate with private landowners.

“For 25 years, North Carolina was home to one of the most successful predator reintroductions in the world,” said Ramona McGee, senior attorney and leader of SELC’s wildlife program, in announcing the settlement. “This puts us on 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.”

When the FWS initially reintroduced red wolves at the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge and implemented adaptive coyote management to reduce hybridization, wild red wolves rebounded from extinction in 1987 to about 100 animals in the early 2000s. The program expanded to the Pocosin Lakes NWR, as well as nearby private land, comprising about 1.7 million acres around the Albemarle Peninsula.

“But starting in 2014 and 2015, we saw shifts at FWS,” McGee told TLR from her office in Chapel Hill. “They stopped releasing wolves, they stopped cross fostering [an important boost to wild populations under which captive-bred newborns are added to wild litters], and they stopped coyote sterilizations. They issued a private-taking authorization [for a landowner to kill a wolf] which, under their own rule, was a measure only to be taken under certain circumstances. When they issued a second private taking, we filed suit.”

Red Wolf pack at the Conservation Center by Rebecca Bose.

SELC won a temporary injunction to stay the FWS reversals, and then won a permanent injunction in 2018. When FWS issued a formal proposal to roll back the Red Wolf Recovery Program, SELC went back to court, leading to the recent settlement.

When the 2020 suit was filed, as few as seven red wolves remained in the wild, according to SELC. Between 2019 and 2021, no red wolf pups were born in the wild for the first time in the program’s history.

“This settlement marks a new era for the Red Wolf Recovery Program,” said Ben Prater, Southeast program director at Defenders of Wildlife. “It guarantees action in the near-term to give this species the best chance for long-term survival and recovery. We now have a durable solution and an enduring commitment to wild red wolf conservation.”

McGee explained that the settlement resolving the suit includes binding agreements. “There are clear requirements for annual release plans for at least eight years, and there are enforcement mechanisms.”

The release program and the captive breeding programs are a nationwide effort involving dozens of institutions. The Museum of Life & Science is one. “North Carolina is where the action is, in the wild and here in Durham,” Sherry Samuels, senior director of animal care, told TLR. “We would like to see more releases. These animals are meant to be in the wild.”

The museum got its first red wolf, a male, in November 1992, then a female in February 1993. They had their first litter that May, a notable success for a new breeding program. To ensure the most robust genetic variation among a still-small population, animals are occasionally moved among facilities. The museum has had eight breeding pairs producing five litters. That is significantly higher than the average success rate across the national program: 25% of breeding pairs producing litters.

The museum and other facilities work closely with FWS on genetic matching, said Samuels. “The ones best suited for the wild are moved to larger habitats.” The wolves at the museum are seen by half a million visitors a year, so their role in the greater scheme is as ambassadors for their species and for the fundamental principle that predators are a natural part of the wild.

“We need more wolves on the landscape,” said Samuels, “for that we need more natural sites,” that can support wild populations. “We need more cooperating institutions to make more wolves.”

The other essential element is public support. Both McGee and Samuels spoke of the continuing efforts of breeding programs to educate people about the place of wolves in the wild. They also credited FWS with renewed efforts to collaborate with voters and land owners around North Carolina.

“There has been a lot of polling and surveys,” said McGee. “The results range from broad public support for wolf reintroduction to general ambivalence. There is only a minority, a very vocal minority, opposed. One of the key objectives of the program is public engagement. That includes public meetings, and a telephone hotline.”

The NCWF Prey for the Pack program is another manifestation of those efforts. “With the majority of land in North Carolina being privately owned, it’s vital to form conservation partnerships with landowners,” according to the federation. “And when it comes to threatened or endangered species such as red wolves, conservation partnerships are even more critical.”

NCWF collaborates with FWS in the Partners for the Fish and Wildlife Program to provide technical and financial support to promote and implement habitat improvement projects that benefit both the landowner and wildlife. Prey for the Pack engages private landowners, specifically in the Albemarle-Pamlico Peninsula. “It’s an opportunity for landowners to support wildlife on their property while also meeting their land management goals.”

The Federation’s most recent new chapter, the Tri-County Conservationists, is based in Chapel Hill and also includes Carrboro, Hillsborough, Mebane, and Pittsboro.

[Disclosure: the reporter is a member of the NCWF.]

Gregory DL Morris is an independent journalist based in Chapel Hill with more than 30 years’ experience covering business, environment, energy and infrastructure. He has reported from all 50 states, eight Canadian provinces, and 17 countries on five continents.

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2 Comments on "Chapel Hill Office of Regional Environmental Group Secures Major Settlement for Red Wolf Recovery"

  1. Thanks for the article about red wolves in NC. Where could we donate to support this?

  2. How about an article on Tri-County Conservationists? Would like to learn more about what you all do and membership.

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