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Our New Favorite Judge May Have Saved Red Wolves From Extinction

A red wolf in captivity in Florida. Mark Conlin / Getty Images

Here at EcoWatch, we love red wolves. Seriously, I challenge you to watch this video of "Four Weeks Young" wolves at the Museum of Life and Science in Durham, North Carolina and not fall in love:


Red Wolf Adventures "Four Weeks Young" www.youtube.com

That's why we were so sad to report this spring that there are only around 40 members of this adorable but extremely endangered species left in the only wild population in North Carolina, and that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) estimated they could go extinct within eight years.

Worse, instead of fighting to preserve this shrinking population, FWS released a proposal in June limiting the red wolves' safe territory to public lands in northeast North Carolina and allowing private landowners to kill or trap any wolves that crossed their property lines. Conservation groups were understandably outraged, saying it "doomed" the red wolves' chances for survival in the wild.

But now a North Carolina judge has come to the rescue, The Washington Post reported. In a ruling Monday, Chief Judge Terrence W. Boyle ripped the FWS for chipping away at a previously successful program reintroducing red wolves in North Carolina and said the FWS violated the Endangered Species Act and the National Environmental Policy Act by doing so.

Here's just an excerpt of Boyle's thorough takedown:

The Red Wolf Program having been declared a success in 2007, defendants, beginning in approximately 2014 and without consultation or formal review, determined to disregard management guidelines which had been in place since 1999 which distinguished between problem and non-problem wolves in regard to landowner take requests, to cease introductions of wolves into the wild, to cease pup-fostering, and to cease actively attempting to manage the threat from coyotes on the viability of the wild red wolf population. While a shift in any one or some of these activities may fall within the agency's discretion, when taken together, these actions go beyond the agency's discretion and operate to violate USFWS' mandate to recover this species in the wild.

The ruling goes on to note that the wolves' population saw a "drastic decrease" from 2013 to 2015. That's around when FWS stopped its successful policies and made the shameful decision to allow landowners to shoot and kill wolves, even if they weren't causing any problems.

The Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC) initiated a lawsuit on behalf of three other conservation groups to stop that killing in 2015, and Monday's ruling now makes permanent a 2016 court order banning those killings, giving the red wolves a new lease on life.

"For four years now, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has been dismantling one of the most successful predator reintroductions in U.S. history," SELC senior attorney Sierra Weaver said in a press release. "The service knows how to protect and recover the red wolf in the wild, but it stopped listening to its scientists and started listening to bureaucrats instead. The law doesn't allow the agency to just walk away from species conservation, like it did here."

But what does the lawsuit mean for the FWS proposal to shrink the red wolves' territory? SELC said the proposal was a blatant attempt to get out of the pending court case, and Monday's decision makes clear that it goes against the service's conservation obligations.

"Rolling back protections is the opposite of what this species needs," Red Wolf Coalition Executive Director Kim Wheeler said in the SELC press release. "The court's ruling today makes clear that the USFWS must recommit to red wolf recovery and resume its previously successful management policies and actions."

It is also wildly unpopular. Of the 108,124 comments FWS received on the proposal, 99.9 percent of them opposed it. And of the 19 comments that supported restricting the wolves' territory, 13 came from just one real estate developer.

Red wolves once roamed the entire eastern U.S. before they were hunted nearly to extinction. In the late 1970s, a few pairs were bred in captivity, and in the late 1980s, two breeding pairs were reintroduced into the wild in North Carolina. Their numbers swelled to nearly 140 in the early 2000s before the FWS dropped the ball. Hopefully, this court order will allow them to thrive once again.

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