RED ALERT: A wolf recovery program's failure shows how the Fish and Wildlife Service has lost its way.

AuthorNash, Stephen

Not long ago, I rolled into windblown Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge, seeking to renew an old acquaintance--with a program aimed at rescuing the red wolf, a critically endangered species, from extinction.

The refuge is in a boggy and buggy section of coastal North Carolina, a wide amber floodplain of tall reeds and scrub trees. It is only sparsely inhabited--unless you count otters, cottontails, raccoons, and a long list of shorebirds. There's a significant population of black bears here, too. One stared me down along a dirt road in the refuge before it made a leisurely pivot and ambled off into a thicket.

This is also home, just barely to Cants rufits, the rarest kind of wolf on the planet. I called the offices of the refuge, whose website invites visitors to occasional "wolf howlings," but I was told that the program has been discontinued. Indeed, wild red wolves may themselves soon be discontinued.

Fossil evidence indicates that red wolves inhabited the region from Florida to New York and west to the Mississippi River for nearly all of the past ten thousand years. But they've arrived at the edge of extinction in the wild now because of a derelict federal agency, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Paradoxically, it is the same agency that once rescued them.

The program's near-collapse is emblematic of a hunkered-down Service, its upper-level administrative culture long broken, through several national administrations, the agency has been chronically allergic to controversy about endangered species, often ready to kneecap its own mission with delays, evasions, and capitulations.

What we've seen is that the [Washington,] D.C., office has, over time, purged everyone with an interest in endangered species," says Kieran Suckling, executive director of the Center for Biological Diversity. "Those people are gone. The ones who are left look at endangered species as just a headache."

The last seventeen wild red wolves that could be found were captured by the Fish and Wildlife Service in Texas and Louisiana in the 1970s. In the 1990s, I talked with exuberant biologists who were beginning to reintroduce some of their captive-bred descendants to the wild. All that promise has now dissipated.

"While wild red wolves have faced a number of threats, the biggest threat in recent years has been the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service itself," a group of litigants has charged. The Service is supposed to be the national custodian of nonmarine endangered species and the lead agency for attempts to pull these species back toward sustained survival.

The remnant wild red wolf population at Alligator River represents an investment of decades of inspired...

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