On the surface, it seemed like a victory—the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced Monday that it was not abandoning the decades-old Red Wolf Recovery Program; the roughly forty red wolves living in eastern North Carolina could stay there.
But after the dust settled, advocates who have been fighting to protect the endangered species from extinction took a closer look at just what the so-called "clear path forward" for the animal entailed. As state Representative Pricey Harrison puts it, that path "sounds bad."
Cindy Dohner, the USFWS's southeast regional director, makes the government's commitment to the species sound convincing. "We are committed to red wolf recovery. I am committed to red wolf recovery," she says. "The steps we are outlining today represent the best opportunity for positive progress."
The feds' plan begins with—and seemingly focuses on—securing the captive population of two hundred-plus wolves living in zoos across the country.
"The most stunning data shows the captive population is not secure. We believed it was, but it is not. In fact, if we continue with the status quo, we will likely lose the captive population," Dohner says—and losing the captive population could mean losing the entire species. "Under the current conditions, with only twenty-nine breeding pairs in captivity, the population is unable to sustain itself. That is unacceptable. This should be a priority."
Not necessarily, wolf advocates argue. According to conservation scientist Ron Sutherland, the government's philosophy amounts to the abandonment of wild red wolf recovery in North Carolina and "shifts the emphasis" to captive wolves.
But, to Sutherland, the most concerning part is the government's call to contain the existing wild wolf population on federal land in Dare County—the former recovery area spanned five counties—"which at most could support ten to fifteen wolves," he says. "Any wolves that leave federal land will be captured and returned to captivity, or possibly just shot by landowners who would face no repercussions if the wolves were outside of the new restricted recovery area."
So this is a victory for the wolf, albeit a short-term one. It's certainly better than the alternative, which the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission—on behalf of wealthy landowners who believe the wolf to be a nuisance—had been pushing. But just what will happen in the years to come is another issue—one Harrison says can be solved by a new administration.
"I blame it, in large part, on the McCrory administration," she says. "But once we have a change, I think we can resolve the landowner conflict and any other issues that might come up."