CHARLOTTE, NC (Bruce Henderson/The Charlotte Observer) - A key U.S. Senate committee has urged a federal wildlife agency to end a 30-year effort in North Carolina to save endangered red wolves from extinction.
The news was part of the Senate Appropriations Committee's $32 billion spending bill for the Department of Interior and environmental agencies, released last week. It adds fuel to mounting pressure by North Carolina's wildlife commission and landowners to halt the program.
Red wolves were declared extinct in the wild in 1980. Wolves from a captive population were re-released in North Carolina in 1987 and are the only remaining red wolves in the wild. The shy, secretive animals weigh 45 to 80 pounds as adults.
"The program has failed to meet population goals for the red wolf and has impacted North Carolina landowners and the populations of several other native species," the statement read. "The committee encourages the (Fish and Wildlife) Service to consider ending the program in fiscal year 2018 and expects the service to work closely with the (state commission) during fiscal year 2018 as it determines further actions on this matter."
The wolves' numbers have dropped by nearly half in recent years largely because they're being illegally killed.
In 2013, federal biologists estimated that 90 to 110 red wolves roamed a five-county area in northeastern North Carolina called the Albemarle Peninsula. By 2016, those numbers were down to 45 to 60 wild wolves. Suspected or confirmed gunshots accounted for 17 of the dead wolves since 2013 and suspected "illegal take" such as trapping added five more.
Rewards totaling $20,000 were offered for information in the illegal poisoning of a wolf in January.
U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis, a Republican from Mecklenburg County, has also called for an end to the wolf program. Tillis told a U.S. House committee last year that more than 500 private landowners have asked that the federal government keep wolves off their land.
"Before we do anything more in North Carolina, I think it makes the most sense to shut the program down to figure out how to do it right and build some credibility with the landowners," Tillis said then. "There is a less than respectful history of dialogue between folks in North Carolina and the Fish and Wildlife Service. This is going to be an issue my office will be focused on for as long as I'm a U.S. senator."
The Fish and Wildlife Service has not said it would end the program. But last year the agency proposed changes that would allow it to move wild wolves into its captive-breeding program, which holds about 200 wolves. The changes would limit wolves to federal land in Dare County alone instead of the largely private land they now roam in five counties.
A public comment period on the proposal that ended in July prompted more than 12,000 responses. Wildlife advocates who analyzed the comments reported overwhelming support for keeping wild wolves in North Carolina.