The Second Extinction of the Red Wolf

By Hallie Lipsey*

In 1980, the red wolf was declared extinct in the wild.[1] Now the Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC) is fighting to ensure the United States Fish and Wildlife Service does not let them go extinct a second time.[2]

Once, the red wolf roamed a territory that spanned from the coast of the southeastern United States to Texas and as far north as the Ohio River Valley.[3] The Cherokee respected and worshipped the animals, which they named “wa’ya.”.[4] When European settlers arrived in Jamestown, those who stepped off the boat stepped directly into the red wolf’s territory.

However, by the 1900’s, the pressures of modernization drove the red wolf’s range back from the eastern coast.[5]Measures to curtail predators and habitat destruction culled their numbers, and the species began to hybridize with coyotes due to a dwindling availability of potential mates, further diluting the red wolf genetic pool.[6] By 1973, US Fish and Wildlife Service identified the last 43 animals still alive, all of which were pulled from the wild. Of this group, only 17 pure-blooded red wolves remained.[7] The US Fish and Wildlife selected 14 animals to be part of a captive breeding program in a desperate measure to preserve the species. However, out of these 14 animals, their genetics rendered them so similar as to constitute the genetic equivalent of only 8 distinct wolves, further limiting the breeding diversity.[8] By 1976, the red wolf was listed as endangered according to the qualifications of the Endangered Species Act.[9] In 1980, the red wolf was officially labeled extinct in the wild.[10]

Nevertheless, under the direction of the captive breeding program, the push to recover the species commenced.[11] Seven years later, the US Fish and Wildlife Service released 63 red wolves back into the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge in eastern North Carolina.[12] Given the intrinsic nature of wolves to roam, local citizens issued concerns regarding the animals’ potential to wander onto private lands.[13] In response, the US Fish and Wildlife Service agreed to alter the rules which prohibited the “taking” of any creature listed as endangered.[14] Generally, according to the Endangered Species Act, the “taking” of an animal prevents citizens from harassing, harming, pursuing, hunting, shooting, wounding, killing, trapping, capturing, or collecting any endangered species.[15] In order to relax this prohibition and foster public acceptance of the project, the US Fish and Wildlife Service enacted regulation 50 C.F.R. § 17.84(c), which held that a person could “take” a red wolf if he believed his life or another’s to be in danger or if the killing was unintentional.[16] Furthermore, it stipulated that a landowner could kill a wolf “when the wolves are in the act of killing livestock or pets,[p]rovided that freshly wounded or killed livestock or pets are evident.”[17]

Yet not everyone was appeased. Two landowners and two North Carolina counties brought suit against the government, questioning its authority to shield wolves after they wandered onto private property.[18] On appeal, the 4th Circuit held that the Red Wolf Recovery Program qualified as legitimate under the Commerce Clause in the Constitution according to the three categories of activity as laid out in United States v. Lopez, 514 U.S. 549 (1995), even though the red wolf program took place entirely intrastate.[19] The Court noted that the program drew visitors and scientists from across state lines, thereby qualifying as interstate commerce.[20] Furthermore, it elaborated that the power of defending a dwindling species went to the heart of Congress’s power to halt an undefined commercial cost through the loss of natural resources.[21] It stated, “Extinction, after all, is irreversible. If a species becomes extinct, we are left to speculate forever on what we might have learned or what we may have realized. If we conserve the species, it will be available for the study and benefit of future generations. In any event, it is for Congress to choose between inaction and preservation, not for the courts.”[22]

Once their protection was affirmed by the judicial system, the numbers of red wolves swelled in North Carolina, approaching 200 animals.[23] For a decade, they prospered and expanded throughout the eastern flatlands in the state.[24] However, the local population again began to complain about the presence of the red wolves, and they pressured the government to have them removed.[25] Sustainability and financial issues arose in the US Fish and Wildlife Service, and some scientists expressed concern about renewed red wolf hybridization with coyotes.[26]  Therefore, the US Fish and Wildlife Service decided to scale back the program.[27] It halted the release of new animals into the refuge and restricted the program to Dare County, where a portion of the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge is located.[28] Although the US Fish and Wildlife Service had brought back the red wolf from extinction and had its efforts confirmed by the US Circuit Court, it elected to allow the red wolf to fade once again. They ceased fundamental conservation practices; they acted to kill or capture the animals, and the number of red wolves in the wild dropped to 29.[29]

To stop history from repeating itself, the Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC) filed for a preliminary injunction against the US Fish and Wildlife Service.[30] On September 14, 2016, US District Court Judge Terrence Boyle granted SELC’s motion.[31] He wrote that the government’s current actions “fail to adequately provide for the protection of the red wolves and may in fact jeopardize the population’s survival in the wild.”[32]

As of today, the red wolf population hangs on. Today, 40-65 animals continue to roam a slice of the habitat they once claimed.[33] Despite resistance to the program, polls have found that generally 70-80% of North Carolinians support the continued efforts to save the red wolves.[34] Their survival rests on the commitment of the US Fish and Wildlife Service to fund and defend the program. If not, the SELC remains determined to enforce the government’s responsibility to protect the last of the red wolves.


The views and opinions expressed in this blog are those of the authors only and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Michigan Journal of Environmental and Administrative Law or the University of Michigan.

*Hallie Lipsey is a Junior Editor on MJEAL. She can be reached at hslipsey@umich.edu.

[1] U.S. Fish and Wildlife Serv., Endangered Red Wolves, (2016), http://library.fws.gov/Pubs4/endangered_red_wolves.

[2]  World’s Only Wild Red Wolves in Jeopardy, S. Envtl. Law Ctr., https://www.southernenvironment.org/cases-and-projects/nc-coyote-rule-risks-endangered-red-wolves(last visited Jan. 8, 2016).

[3] Id.

[4] Christopher Camuto, Another Country: Journeying Toward the Cherokee Mountains (1997).

[5] U.S. Fish and Wildlife Serv., supra note 1.

[6] Id.

[7] Id.

[8] Id.

[9] Id.

[10] Id.

[11] Id.

[12] Id.

[13] Gibbs v. Babbitt, 214 F.3d 483, 489 (4th Cir. 2000).

[14] Id.

[15]16 U.S.C. § 1532(19) (2016).

[16] Id. § 17.84(c)(4)(i).

[17] Id. § 17.84(c)(4)(iii).

[18] Gibbs, 214 F.3dat 489

[19] Id. at 492.

[20] Id.

[21] Id.

[22] Id. at 496.

[23] U.S. Fish and Wildlife Serv., supra note 1.

[24] Id.

[25] Lisa Sorg, U.S. Fish and Wildlife to Scale Back Endangered Wolf Program in NC, Send Some Animals to Zoos, NC Pol’y Watch (Sept. 14, 2016), http://www.ncpolicywatch.com/2016/09/14/u-s-fish-and-wildlife-service-to-scale-back-endangered-red-wolf-program-in-nc-send-some-animals-to-zoos/.

[26] Caroline Hudson, Court Decision Halts Red Wolf Captures, Wash. Daily News (Sept. 29, 2016), http://www.thewashingtondailynews.com/2016/09/29/court-decision-halts-red-wolf-captures/.

[27] Id.

[28] Id.

[29] Court Stops US Fish and Wildlife Service from Capturing and Killing Wild Red Wolves, S. Envtl. Law Ctr., (Sept. 29, 2016), https://www.southernenvironment.org/news-and-press/press-releases/court-stops-u.s.-fish-wildlife-service-from-capturing-and-killing-wild-red-wolves.

[30] Hudson, supra note 27.

[31] Id.

[32] Id.

[33] U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, supra note 1.

[34] Court Stops US Fish and Wildlife Service, supra note 30.

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