This story originally published online at N.C. Policy Watch. 

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has withdrawn a proposed rule that would have allowed people to intentionally kill red wolves in most of northeastern North Carolina, and would have likely led to the extinction of the species in the wild.

The federal action essentially resets the agency’s policy on red wolf management. Red wolves will be protected in five counties—Beaufort, Dare, Hyde, Tyrrell, and Washington. People can intentionally kill the wolves only to protect themselves, pets and livestock if they are in immediate danger.

“Based on recent court decision … and having considered public comments submitted in response to the 2018 proposed rule, the Service determined that withdrawing the proposed rule is the best course of action at this time,” a USFWS press release said.

Under a 2018 proposal during the Trump administration, USFWS proposed shrinking the wolves’ protected area in North Carolina by 90 percent, limiting it to certain public lands in Hyde and Dare counties. Had that proposal become final, people could have killed the wolves in previously protected areas, which extended throughout Tyrrell, Washington and Beaufort counties.

The Southern Environmental Law Center, on behalf of the Red Wolf Coalition, Defenders of Wildlife and the Animal Welfare Institute, filed a federal complaint, alleging USFWS intentionally failed to protect the critically threatened species as required by federal law. “The science says it will be the end of the red wolf in the wild,” within six to eight years, SELC senior attorney Sierra Weaver said in court at the time.

When the proposed rule went out for public comment, 107,988 of 108,124 comments submitted to the Service advocated for strong federal protections for the red wolves. The red wolf is listed as an endangered species, except in a portion of North Carolina where it was reintroduced as a “nonessential experimental population.” North Carolina, which is part of the species’ historical range, has the only known wild population of red wolves.

Withdrawal of the 2018 proposed rule means USFWS will also reintroduce more wolves into the wild, as it did earlier this year. The agency said it will work with the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission to implement a coyote sterilization program on federal  and non-federal lands, subject to written landowner agreements. The sterilization of coyotes is important because they can breed with wolves and dilute the latter’s genetic purity.

The Southern Environmental Law Center sued USFWS in 2016 over the agency’s failure to manage the species in a way that would prevent its extinction. In 2018, a federal judge issued an injunction on USFWS, ordering the agency to prohibit the capturing and killing of “non-problem wolves”—those posing no immediate danger. In January 2021, U.S. District Court Judge Terrence Boyle required the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to prepare a plan to release captive red wolves

While red wolf advocates applauded the USFWS decision, they said they remain concerned that the agency won’t actively try to keep the species viable.

“We’re pleased that the Fish and Wildlife Service is finally withdrawing its harmful proposal to remove protections for wild red wolves and drastically reduce their protected area, but the question remains: will the agency commit to proven conservation measures to save the world’s rarest wild wolves, including reintroductions?” Weaver said in a prepared statement. “Effective on the ground actions are urgently needed to save wild red wolves now, not just nixing bad proposals.”

“The plan to slash the red wolf’s recovery area was reckless and poorly conceived. I’m relieved the Fish and Wildlife Service finally listened to the public’s outcry against it,” said Perrin de Jong, a staff attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity, in a prepared statement. “People want federal agencies to do more, not less, to protect the world’s most endangered wolf.”

At one time, the red wolf program marked a significant achievement for USFWS.  The agency released the first breeding pairs of red wolves into the wilds of northeastern North Carolina in 1987. By 1992, the agency had declared the experiment a success.

Through the first part of the ’00s, USFWS introduced more wolves into the habitat. It had a program to sterilize coyotes, which had encroached on wolf territory. Coyotes can breed with wolves and dilute the latter’s genetic purity. USFWS also prohibited people from shooting “non-problem” wolves.

As a result, the number of wolves jumped to more than 100, raising the hopes of conservation biologists and wildlife advocates that the species could be saved in the wild.

The red wolf population has plummeted since these policy changes, which may have emboldened some landowners to shoot wolves without a “take permit.” In late 2016, a red wolf was found shot to death on federal land, the fourth such animal to die that year, according to the most recent USFWS figures. The cause of death was not listed.

From 1987 to 2000, 15 red wolves died from gunshot wounds, an average of 1.2 per year. But from 2000 to 2013, the total spiked to 73, an average of 5 per year—a 300 percent increase.

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