Red Alert

Not long ago, I rolled into windblown Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge, seeking to renew an old acquaintance—with a program aimed at rescuing the red wolf, a critically…

Not long ago, I rolled into windblown Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge, seeking to renew an old acquaintance—with a program aimed at rescuing the red wolf, a critically endangered species, from extinction.

The refuge is in a boggy and buggy section of coastal North Carolina, a wide amber floodplain of tall reeds and scrub trees. It is only sparsely inhabited—unless you count otters, cottontails, raccoons, and a long list of shorebirds. There’s a significant population of black bears here, too. One stared me down along a dirt road in the refuge before it made a leisurely pivot and ambled off into a thicket.  

With the new administration, prolonged pushback from the public could be marshaled against the myopia, sniping, and pandering of those in Congress for whom extinction of species that have been on the planet for millions of years is less important than the next election.

This is also home, just barely, to Canis rufus, the rarest kind of wolf on the planet. I called the offices of the refuge, whose website invites visitors to occasional “wolf howlings,” but I was told that the program has been discontinued. Indeed, wild red wolves may themselves soon be discontinued.

Fossil evidence indicates that red wolves inhabited the region from Florida to New York and west to the Mississippi River for nearly all of the past ten thousand years. But they’ve arrived at the edge of extinction in the wild now because of a derelict federal agency, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Paradoxically, it is the same agency that once rescued them.

The program’s near-collapse is emblematic of a hunkered-down Service, its upper-level administrative culture long broken. Through several national administrations, the agency has been chronically allergic to controversy about endangered species, often ready to kneecap its own mission with delays, evasions, and capitulations.

“What we’ve seen is that the [Washington,] D.C., office has, over time, purged everyone with an interest in endangered species,” says Kierán Suckling, executive director of the Center for Biological Diversity. “Those people are gone. The ones who are left look at endangered species as just a headache.”

The last seventeen wild red wolves that could be found were captured by the Fish and Wildlife Service in Texas and Louisiana in the 1970s. In the 1990s, I talked with exuberant biologists who were beginning to reintroduce some of  their captive-bred descendants to the wild. All that promise has now dissipated.

“While wild red wolves have faced a number of threats, the biggest threat in recent years has been the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service itself,” a group of litigants has charged. The Service is supposed to be the national custodian of nonmarine endangered species and the lead agency for attempts to pull these species back toward sustained survival.

The remnant wild red wolf population at Alligator River represents an investment of decades of inspired, science-based  restoration work and tens of millions of dollars. At its highest point, around 2004, the program boasted an estimated population of as many as 150 wolves. By late 2020, only seven radio-collared wolves and a small number of others remained in the wild. In 2019 and again in 2020, no new pups were born, the only time this has happened in more than thirty years.

In a 2019 survey of Fish and Wildlife Service employees conducted by the Union of Concerned Scientists, a quarter said they were asked or told to avoid work on topics deemed politically contentious. More than half reported the diversion of funds or staff time away from work viewed as politically contentious. More than two-thirds said political interests are a burden to science-based decision-making at the agency.

It may be tempting to blame all of this on the outgoing Trump Administration, which has taken sweeping measures to roll back protections in the Endangered Species Act. But the problem predates Trump. The Obama Administration’s Fish and Wildlife Service chief, for instance, championed an epic abdication of federal responsibility.

The red wolf is smaller than the Western gray wolf, but a bit larger than a coyote. It is shy and avoids humans. There are only six documented cases, over the decades of the reintroduction program, of these animals preying on chickens or other livestock. Nonetheless, gunshot mortality is the most common cause of red wolf deaths by far—fifty-two wolves in the past ten years. Sometimes, they are mistaken for coyotes; other times, it’s likely to be out of local hostility.

Three wolves have been shot in the past two years. The Fish and Wildlife Service declined to tell me about the progress of any investigation into recent wolf deaths. Despite multiple requests, the agency refused to discuss any aspect of its red wolf program.

In surveys, as wildlife biologist Joe Hinton told me, a heavy majority of local landowners expressed either support for or indifference to the program. Most allowed biologists access to their property to check on the wolves. There was a measure of local opposition, however, and in 2018 the Fish and Wildlife Service proposed cutting back the reintroduction area, made up of public and private lands in the Alligator River area, by nearly 90 percent.

In a stunning move, it had also begun to issue permits to disgruntled private landowners to kill endangered wolves on their property, whether or not they had been shown to cause harm. Reintroductions of captive wolves were halted, as were other highly effective practices that had been introduced to bolster reproduction over the years. Program staff were also cut.

“Wild red wolves now face a perilously high risk of extinction,” says wildlife biologist and wolf specialist John Vucetich of Michigan Technological University. “The Service’s recent actions seem consistent with abandoning red wolves rather than recovering them.”

Vucetich’s work was cited by a group of forty-one biologists, geneticists, and other conservation scientists who signed on to a July 2018 letter protesting the program’s disintegration.

When the Fish and Wildlife Service attempted to defend its actions in court, a federal judge, in a scathing ruling, reminded the agency of its own dictum: “Wildlife are not the property of landowners but belong to the public and are managed by federal and state governments for the public good.” The court enjoined the Fish and Wildlife Service from giving private citizens permission to kill red wolves without cause, and declared the agency to be in violation of the Endangered Species Act, for failing to conserve the plummeting wild wolf population.

The agency has produced little but word salad since that court order. In September, the Southern Environmental Law Center gave notice that, once again, it intends to file suit to try to force the agency to follow the law. Since the order, “the remaining wild red wolf population has been halved yet again and has fallen to an unprecedented and dire state,” the notice says.

The Fish and Wildlife Service declares on its website that, even if the red wolf reintroduction project in Eastern North Carolina ends, “the Service will continue to work towards the recovery goal,” which calls for three wild and self-sustaining populations throughout the species’ historical range.

There are still about 250 captive red wolves at cooperating zoos and wildlife parks around the United States but the calamitous failure at Alligator River will make other initiatives far more difficult.

Maggie Howell, executive director of New York’s Wolf Conservation Center, has protected and bred captive red wolves for twenty years. “Being a part of this program and seeing the population rise and be replicated by other programs and then to see it just fall apart has been pretty devastating to witness,” she says. “This was a program that was working. It would just be heartbreaking if it was all done in vain.”

Howell would want any new efforts at reintroduction to avoid the mistakes of the past, like taking away most of the red wolves’ habitat and allowing them to be shot for no reason. “The whole purpose is to have them be functioning, viable wolves on a wild landscape,” she says. “Doing what they do—hunting, having pups, and having their impact on their native ecosystem.”

But achieving that goal runs counter to the Fish and Wildlife Service template of caving in to special interests and their Congressional allies at the expense of endangered species—also including bats, wolverines, lynxes, Florida panthers, and grizzly bears. The cost in terms of lost and diminished species is incalculable.

In the Southwest, the reintroduction of Mexican gray wolves has seen years of delay, temporizing, and litigation. (In late October, the administration of Donald Trump removed the Northern gray wolf from its list of endangered species.)

Another example is the magnificent jaguar, which could once be found from California to Louisiana. A few have reentered the United States from Mexico since the 1990s despite walls, traps, and rifles, but the Fish and Wildlife Service has thrown no welcoming parties. For years, it resisted declaring the jaguar an endangered species until forced to do so by an adverse court ruling. Then it dragged its feet on designating critical habitat and preparing a recovery plan.

And in 2014, after that was finally accomplished, a Fish and Wildlife Service administrator overruled his agency’s own biologists and approved an eight-square-mile copper mine, owned by a Canadian company, within the newly “protected” jaguar habitat. (That project is pending.)

The Fish and Wildlife Service’s innovative and endlessly patient front-line biologists have scored many successes, heralded and otherwise. The increasingly robust bald eagle population is the agency’s poster child. But its mission might be better served by sending those biologists to a new agency, freed from the enmired administrative culture of the FWS.

There is precedent: After the Deepwater Horizon oil spill nightmare in 2010, the Obama Administration dissolved the thoroughly corrupted Minerals Management Service, moving its regulatory work to new agencies.

It is legitimate to wonder, of course, why that new venture would have any greater success, if our national administration continued to be indifferent and conflict-averse. Or if it were implacably hostile to wildlife, like the Trump squad.

Then, too, it seems unrealistic to suppose that all but a few career civil servants will fall on their swords on behalf of rare species—that they’d risk damaging battles with abraded locals and faint-hearted higher-ups. Are chances better than fair that you and I wouldn’t, either? That kind of official courage at the FWS has to be provoked by loud, tenacious public support.

Now is a good time to begin thinking this through. According to a 2019 Gallup Poll, public support for endangered species remains extraordinarily strong. Eighty-eight percent said they worry about the extinction of plant and animal species to some degree; 68 percent “a great deal or a fair amount.”

With the new administration, prolonged pushback from the public could be marshaled against the myopia, sniping, and pandering of those in Congress for whom extinction of species that have been on the planet for millennia or millions of years is less important than the next election.

In late 2019, North Carolina’s Democratic Governor Roy Cooper warned Trump’s Interior Secretary David Bernhardt that, with regard to the red wolf, “the continued decline of this critically endangered species is unacceptable.”

On October 27, 2020, Representative Donald McEachin, Democrat of Virginia, and twenty-three other members of Congress sent a letter to Bernhardt urging the agency to “commit to the preservation and protection of our nation’s imperiled species by taking the actions necessary to ensure a prosperous future for the American red wolf.”

We assumed our role as protectors of the growing list of nearly extinct plants and animals almost half a century ago, with the passage of the Endangered Species Act, the first of its kind in the world. Since then, the prospect of mass extinctions has grown far more immediate—a million species worldwide, according to a recent United Nations report.

“Nothing is more priceless and worthy of preservation than the rich array of animal life with which our country has been blessed,” Republican President Richard Nixon said on signing the act into law in 1973. But if we want to keep that promise—it’s ours, not his—we’ll have to find a national government and a Fish and Wildlife Service that will fight for it.

This post was originally published on Radio Free.

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