RALEIGH — Federal wildlife officials asked the public Friday to weigh in as the government reviews whether to continue maintaining the world’s only wild population of the red wolf in eastern North Carolina.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced that it had awarded a contract to the Virginia-based nonprofit Wildlife Management Institute to evaluate its 27-year experiment to restore the endangered species to the wild.
About 100 red wolves currently roam the wild in Eastern North Carolina, and about 200 are in captive breeding programs in several locations in the U.S. They were first released into the wilderness under the program in 1987. The red wolf had been considered extinct in the wild as of 1980, though captive breeding programs existed.
The public is asked to offer comments online and at two public meetings before the comment period ends on Sept. 12. The 60-day evaluation will end on October 10.
“Once we receive the final evaluation, we will review it and make a decision to continue, modify, or terminate the red wolf recovery program,” said Leopoldo Miranda, an assistant regional director for the Fish and Wildlife Service
Asked about what terminating the program would entail, Miranda said during a conference call that no decisions have been made. When a program to restore the wolves to the Smoky Mountains in the western part of the state ended in 1998, the agency tried to capture all of the animals and bring them back to captivity, he said.
Sierra Weaver, a lawyer with the Southern Environmental Law Center, said the public should be given longer than two weeks to comment, especially considering the announcement came at the start of a holiday weekend. She also said that the federal agency failed to put a notice of the review in the Federal Register as required.
“The agency has failed to comply with the process outlined in the Endangered Species Act for this type of review and we are concerned it is not taking seriously its responsibilities to save the red wolf from extinction,” she said.
A spokesman for the federal agency didn’t immediately respond to an email seeking comment on Weaver’s criticism Friday afternoon.
In May, the Southern Environmental Law Center helped convince a federal judge to block the hunting of coyotes near the red wolf habitat. They argued that the animals look similar and are easily confused, leading to the wolves being shot.
The judge issued a ban on hunting until a trial takes place on a lawsuit by the environmental group seeking to permanently end coyote hunting in several eastern North Carolina counties. The lawsuit is pending.
In all, eight of the wolves have died in 2014, including two killed by gunshot. Several of them died from car accidents or health issues.
Miranda said Friday that none of the wolves have been shot to death since the ban was enacted.
The Sept. 10 and Sept. 11 public meetings will be in Columbia and Swan Quarter, respectively. The meetings are open to the public and will involve moderators interacting in discussions with the participants.