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Government Study Confirms Endangered Red Wolves Are a Separate Species Worthy of Protection

Animals
JeffGoulden / E+ / Getty Images

One of the most endangered wolves in the world is indeed its own species. That's the important finding of a National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine report released Thursday, which determined that red wolves are genetically distinct from gray wolves and coyotes.


The finding is a boon to conservationists, who have been arguing for continued protections for the approximately 35 red wolves left in the wild. After being nearly wiped out from their historic range in the eastern U.S., the endangered species was reintroduced to an area in eastern North Carolina in 1987, but last spring the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) proposed to limit their territories to public lands and allow landowners to shoot or trap them if they entered private property.

"The USFWS decision to reverse course on a successful recovery program and facilitate the red wolf's slide toward extinction in the wild is a travesty and a clear violation of federal law," Animal Welfare Institute (AWI) Wildlife Biologist D.J. Schubert said in a statement emailed to EcoWatch. "With today's finding, there is no more excuse for not immediately restoring full protections and urgently enacting management measures to rebuild North Carolina's wild red wolf population and to restore the species to other areas within its historic range."

The study, which was mandated by Congress in 2018, also confirmed that Mexican gray wolves are a valid taxonomic subspecies of gray wolf. There are only 114 of this subspecies left in northern Mexico and the southeastern U.S. They are one of 93 endangered species threatened by President Donald Trump's proposed border wall, and their movement and survival is already threatened by razor wire placed along the border.


There had been controversy surrounding the status of red wolves since they were reintroduced in North Carolina. That is because the individuals used to restart the wild population had been captured from an area where they had already interbred with coyotes and gray wolves, the National Academies' study said. Their unique status had been especially challenged by some North Carolina officials and a small group of landowners, The Charlotte Observer reported. However, the report appears to put those challenges to rest.

"There's clearly been introduction of coyote genes and gray wolf genes into red wolves. But they also have genes not seen in coyotes and gray wolves," chair of the panel behind the study and Florida State University biology professor Joseph Travis told The Charlotte Observer. "They must have continuity with some ancestor which was not a gray wolf or coyote."

The reintroduced population grew to around 140 in the early 2000s. Then, around 2014, the USFWS began to dismantle efforts to actively recover the species and allowed landowners to kill wolves even if they were not causing problems. A judge in 2018 ruled that the USFWS had violated the Endangered Species Act (ESA) and the National Environmental Policy Act by stepping back from active recovery efforts and made permanent a court order stopping wolf killings.

The results of Thursday's study are important in this context because they confirm that both red wolves and Mexican gray wolves are worthy of protection under the Endangered Species Act.

"A majority of experts on red wolf taxonomy have concluded, time and time again, that the red wolf represents a unique lineage that is worthy of conservation and should remain a listable entity under the ESA," Wolf Conservation Center Executive Director Maggie Howell said in a press release. "No longer plagued by questions of taxonomy, USFWS needs to re-evaluate its recent decisions and management changes and bring its efforts back in line with the conservation mandate of the ESA."

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