Wildlife & Biodiversity

Red wolf: A canid’s cautionary tale

The story of America’s red wolves is a warning and one we will see retold again and again by other species if the new Endangered Species Act rules are allowed to go forward

By Kate Wall
Published: Tuesday 20 August 2019
The changes in the US Endangered Species Act could mean the difference between existence and extinction for many species like the Red Wolf. Photo: Getty Images
The changes in the US Endangered Species Act could mean the difference between existence and extinction for many species like the Red Wolf. Photo: Getty Images The changes in the US Endangered Species Act could mean the difference between existence and extinction for many species like the Red Wolf. Photo: Getty Images

We live in precarious times. Climate change is no longer a distant threat, but a daily reality. July 2019 was the hottest month on record since humanity began tracking temperatures in the late 19th century. Immensely powerful storms, escalating wildfires, melting glaciers, and rising seas make themselves felt around the globe.

At the same time, according to a report released this spring by the Intergovernmental Platform for Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), species are disappearing at a faster rate than ever before, a trend fueled not only by the changing climate, but by the impacts of both habitat destruction and overconsumption.

Human activities are at the root of these ominous changes and thus fuel this ongoing tailspin. As our natural world faces unprecedented threats, we do not stand apart from our fellow species — our very survival is also under threat.

Unfortunately, there are those among us who are unable or unwilling to recognise the severity of the crisis facing our planet and the entirety of its species — they choose a ‘business as usual approach’ while ignoring the devastating impacts of that choice.

Amid the dire warnings of climate change and species extinction, the US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) last week finalised a plan to roll back protections for threatened and endangered species through fundamental changes to its interpretation and implementation of the US Endangered Species Act (ESA).

For background, the Endangered Species Act was signed into law in 1973 and has consistently proved one of the most effective tools for conserving and restoring imperiled plant and animal species — not just in the United States, but around the globe.

The law protects ‘listed’ species — plants and animals designated as threatened or endangered — in a variety of ways, from preserving critical habitat to prohibiting hunting, harassment, and other behaviours that could further imperil the species.

The Act has been responsible for recovery of the iconic American bald eagle, and even provided safeguards for protected species outside the US by limiting domestic imports. The ESA is not only effective, it is wildly popular. In poll after poll, respondents consistently voice strong support for the law across demographic groups, and in February, a poll by the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) found that an overwhelming 88 per cent support the Act.

However, for some private landowners and industries, the ESA is viewed as an impediment, an obstacle to be overcome. Sadly, these interests have prevailed upon FWS to re-write the rules, making it harder to protect both threatened and endangered species.

The new regulations fundamentally undermine the ESA by eliminating key protections for threatened species and making it easier to degrade critical habitat. Perhaps most troubling, the new regulations reverse a critical and foundational element of the ESA that ensures only science be used to determine whether a species is ‘threatened’ or ‘endangered.’ The new regulations now allow for an analysis of economic considerations, which could significantly influence these listing decisions.

A canid on the brink

So in essence, what will these new regulations mean for both plants and animals? We need look no further than the red wolf. Once a ubiquitous inhabitant of the American Southeast, with a native range spanning from Texas to Missouri and New York to Florida, the red wolf is now the most endangered canid in the world.

Smaller and leaner than gray wolves, with a distinctive tawny colouring, red wolves were hunted to extinction in the wild in a concerted effort to rid the landscape of ‘pests’ that might prey on livestock or compete with humans for other prey.

But, in the 1980s, a few captive-bred red wolves were released into North Carolina to establish an experimental breeding colony. Initially the wolves flourished, building to a population that reached 150 individuals.

But soon, pressure began building from farming and hunting interests that didn’t want to share their land with the native wolves — although there is not a single instance of a red wolf attacking a human since their reintroduction, and they rarely predate livestock.

In a series of moves that — now — look eerily similar to a trial of the new ESA regulatory model, the FWS stopped introducing new captive-bred red wolves into the wild and proposed limiting the wolves’ habitat to public lands.

In addition, it proposed allowing private landowners to shoot wolves that wandered onto their property — both of these later recommendations were successfully challenged in court. With some 200 red wolves in captive breeding facilities, the FWS argued that the wolves’ wild population is ‘unnecessary’ — and that is a stark representation of how the agency views its conservation duties.

Rather than aiming to protect and recover imperiled plant and animal species as well as safeguard the health of our shared ecosystems, the administration envisions preserving a few representatives of each species in shrinking fragments of habitat — or even breeding facilities — scattered among developed areas.

Now fewer than 35 wild red wolves cling perilously to a toehold in a tiny swath of North Carolina marshland around the Alligator River. The red wolves’ story is a cautionary tale — and one we will see retold again and again by other species if the new ESA rules are allowed to go forward.

Wolves are an essential part of the American ecosystem. When gray wolves were reintroduced to Yellowstone in the 1990s, scientists and land managers saw the park’s ecosystem transform.

Sedentary elk (wapiti) populations moved away from the riverside, allowing vegetation to regrow; overgrazed aspen regenerated; and beavers moved back into healthy streams; bird populations increased.

But the new ESA regulations place short-term economic interests above these long-term benefits. The sweeping changes place unchecked development and resource extraction above the survival of endangered plants and animals, and completely disregard the principle that one extinction can initiate an ecologically devastating chain reaction in the environment, placing other species — including humans — at risk.

While the new rules apply only to forthcoming actions under the ESA, and so in theory will not affect the red wolf, any new plans related to red wolf survival will be drawn under the new paradigm. That is alarmingly bad news for red wolves… and every other species.

As we face the unparalleled existential threats of massive species extinction and climate change, IFAW recognises — as we all must — that the survival of every species is intertwined. We need to prioritise coexistence not only with the objective of saving other species, but to save our own as well.

Kate Wall is Senior Legislative Manager, US Country Office, International Fund for Animal Welfare. This column is a personal opinion and does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Down To Earth

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