The Collapse of Wild Red Wolves Is a Warning That Should Worry Us All

The Collapse of Wild Red Wolves Is a Warning That Should Worry Us All

The Collapse of Wild Red Wolves Is a Warning That Should Worry Us All

If the government is already struggling to protect iconic creatures like wolves from extinction in the wild, how will it handle the daunting future?


The killing of red wolf 11768f was the beginning of the bad times for this country’s most critically endangered canid. It was mid-2015, and 11768F was a six-year-old matriarch with a mate and a large family. She’d already given birth several times before, and the evidence suggests she may have been caring for more newborns in the wet coastal forests that flourish near North Carolina’s Outer Banks. She and her family were supposed to be safe, thanks to the strong protections of the Endangered Species Act, which makes it a crime to harm or harass listed animals like red wolves. But then, in a foreshadowing of events to follow, the federal government issued her death warrant: It gave a private landowner permission to gun her down. By late June, she was dead. She was the first-ever federally listed red wolf shot and killed by a private individual with explicit government consent.

“The cause of death in this well-nourished adult female red wolf was multiple gunshot wounds,” a government autopsy, obtained by The Nation, determined. If she did have a batch of new babies, no one knows what happened to them.

Until that troubled summer, red wolves had been the protagonists of a stunning, if controversial, conservation success story. A lithe, long-legged carnivore endemic to the woodlands of the southern and eastern United States, red wolves were once on the doorstep of extinction. Extirpated from most of their range by varied forms of persecution—poisoning, shooting, trapping, and the destabilizing impacts of development—they had been like dinosaurs watching the asteroid arrive. There were fewer than 20 true red wolves left in the wild when the US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), which oversees the Endangered Species Act, swooped in to save them in the 1970s. From that meager remnant, a decades-long federal reintroduction effort boosted the wild population about tenfold, all of which lived in or around the 152,000-acre Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge on the North Carolina coast. The first major experiment in large carnivore restoration in US history, the red wolf program would ultimately help inspire and inform the successful reintroduction of the gray wolf to Yellowstone National Park in 1995. The red wolf program offered hope that these keen animals, with their strong family bonds and fascinating social behaviors, might have a future on this continent.

But those achievements are now in ruin. This is the story of how and why the FWS, our country’s eminent conservation agency, walked away from its red wolf reintroduction program and let the wild wolf population collapse. The retreat started during the presidency of Barack Obama and continued under Donald Trump. Today there are maybe nine, maybe 10, maybe 20 true red wolves left rambling across the landscape.

“It is unacceptable for an important recovery program to be allowed to wither on the vine,” says Mike Phillips, a renowned wildlife biologist and former FWS official who helped launch the red wolf recovery program, helped lead the reintroduction of western gray wolves, and served for many years in the Montana state legislature. “I can’t think of a more irresponsible discharge of the public trust. Really, it shocked me.”

But it shouldn’t be a big surprise. The story of the red wolf comes with a broader context: It is emblematic of an FWS that is increasingly loath to govern, all too often folding under pressure from powerful interests. Indeed, despite the agency’s duty to protect and recover imperiled species, its top leaders sometimes appear determined to turn their back on the Endangered Species Act when political expediency suggests it. And when it comes to wild wolves, the politics are particularly treacherous.

For reasons ranging from the obvious to the almost mystical, the agriculture industry, certain well-heeled hunting groups, and the lawmakers who represent them have long harbored a profound antipathy toward these animals. Collectively, these groups and others like them have pushed an anti-wolf agenda that has increasingly taken on the tones of a broader culture war—one that sees many wildlife conservation programs as the embodiment of overzealous environmental regulation and creeping government tyranny. Wild red wolves have been some of the most significant casualties to date, but the trouble won’t stop with them.

Within the United States, red wolves are among the roughly 2,300 species granted protection under the Endangered Species Act. The growing extinction crisis, which threatens as many as 1 million species globally, means that many more plants and animals will need federal protection in the years to come. It also means that bold efforts will be required to reverse their declining numbers. If the government is already failing to stand up for iconic creatures like wolves, if it is already failing to hold the line against anti-conservation sentiment, how will it handle the daunting future?

In Wildlife in America, a magisterial mid-20th-century account of the decline of animal populations in North America, Peter Matthiessen foresaw a bleak future for wolves, both gray and red. He believed that the scattered bands of wolves left on the continent would “not long survive.” “Oblivion” was their imminent destination.

By 1959, when Matthiessen was writing, wolf populations across the United States had crumbled as the result of a decades-long campaign in which the federal government, bounty hunters, and American settlers trapped, shot, poisoned, and otherwise annihilated wild canids wherever they could find them. The killing was driven in part by an almost mythic fear of wolves, one that disparaged them as bloodthirsty beasts intent on harming humans and gobbling up livestock and wild game. Barry Lopez, in his book Of Wolves and Men, describes this slaughter as an “American pogrom” in which untold numbers of wolves perished. Red wolves were among them.

Joey Hinton, a red wolf expert with a doctorate in wildlife ecology, told me that in the late 1920s and early ’30s, “there were probably several thousand red wolves killed in east Texas, Arkansas, and Louisiana,” a killing spree that “blew a big hole” in one of the species’ last strongholds. Red wolves were eradicated earlier in other probable parts of their range, like New York and New England, “long before anyone was paying attention.”

What delivered the red wolf, Canis rufus, from this kind of killing was one law: the Endangered Species Act of 1973. The federal government, facing rising public concern about environmental degradation, decided to save wolves. The ESA was the legal tool that empowered the feds to embark on that redemptive effort.

In 1975, the FWS initiated a bold gambit to revive the red wolf’s depleted gene pool. The agency sent its trappers into the species’ last refuge, along the southern stretches of the Louisiana-Texas border, and rounded up every wild red wolf it could find. The trappers captured more than 400 animals, but only a few were true red wolves. Fourteen of the animals became the founding members of a captive breeding program that would slowly rebuild the red wolf population. Those special 14 are the Adams and Eves of the species: Every red wolf alive today is their direct descendant.

The grand experiment took its next tentative step in 1987, when, under the authority of the ESA, the agency released what it called a “non-essential experimental population” of eight wolves into the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge. The habitat there was thought to be ideal—forested, wet, relatively untrammeled, and with plenty of deer and small game for the wolves to live off. The refuge itself was surrounded by farmland, agrarian communities, and a few larger towns. Five counties in the region were designated as the red wolf recovery area.

Between 1987 and 2014, the FWS released 134 wolves into Alligator River or other nearby wildlife refuges. It also initiated a program to sterilize the region’s growing coyote population, which threatened to dilute the red wolf’s fragile gene pool through interbreeding. With a team of field biologists and about $1 million a year in funding, the program took off. In 2007, the FWS declared that the wild wolf population had climbed to “nearly 130 individuals.” It deemed the species “restored” and called the effort “remarkably successful.”

“It was phenomenal,” says Mike Bryant, an FWS veteran who served as the project leader for the red wolf program from 1996 to 2014. ”A phenomenal success.”

But a backlash was bearing down on the reintroduction effort. By the early 2010s, the accomplishments that had attended the program’s early days were about to be torn apart.

Hyde County is one of the five that fall within the red wolf recovery area. Rural and remote, it is a landscape of large farms and marshy forests, home to some 5,000 people in a part of the country renowned for its barrier islands and bear hunting.

On a warm day in late winter, I traveled south from the town of Manteo to meet a farmer whose family has lived in Hyde County for generations. He met me outside a complex of barns and sheds, where he keeps the hulking machinery he uses to raise grains in the region’s fertile soil. There were once many more farming families like his in the county, but low commodity prices and high interest rates in the 1980s drove a large share of small operators out of business. Most of the remaining farmers in the area grow crops on thousands of acres with the help of large tractors, herbicides, and a combination of federal crop insurance and other farm subsidies. The community, he said, has changed too. Where once there were many schools and stores, now there are just a few. Still, it’s a tight-knit place where “everybody knows everybody.”

The farmer, in his 60s, asked that his name not be used in this article for fear that his neighbors might look askance at his moderate views on red wolves. He is not opposed to their reintroduction per se—in fact, he expressed a certain tolerance for the animals—but he said that the federal government has gone about it all wrong and soured many locals on the issue.

The trouble began in earnest, he believes, in 1990. The red wolf reintroduction program had been running for several years, and the wolf population had spread from Alligator River into the surrounding landscape, where the FWS was working with some cooperative landowners. One day in October of that year, a farmer shot and killed a red wolf on his land because, he claimed in a court filing, he feared that the animal would threaten his livestock. The feds prosecuted him for the killing, and he pleaded guilty. The incident stirred up animosity in the community.

“That really put a bad taste in all the landowners’ mouths around here,” said the farmer I interviewed. It also led to a lawsuit by landowners and two counties challenging the authority of the federal government to limit the killing of red wolves on private land. The challenge failed.

Another controversy emerged in 2013, when conservation groups sued in federal court to reverse a decision by local government that allowed permissive coyote hunting practices in the five-county recovery area, including nighttime hunts. The suit argued that too many red wolves were being killed by hunters who mistook them for their smaller canine cousins. The conservationists ultimately settled with the North Carolina authorities, resulting in an agreement that outlawed nighttime coyote hunts, among other measures. Such restrictions fueled a growing fear that the red wolf program posed a danger to property rights.

Conflict over such incidents comes with the territory. The Endangered Species Act is premised on the idea that imperiled species have a right to survive and even thrive that rises above the imperatives of commerce, the whims of personal preference, and the ambitions of influential interests. That central vision is implemented by prohibitions on the killing of protected species and the destruction of their habitat—and those prohibitions can apply to private lands. Such restraints often attract the ire of property holders, notwithstanding the fact that wild animals in North America are generally held in public trust. No individual has a right to do to wild animals as they please.

How widespread were the resentments simmering in the five-county reintroduction area? Even now it is unclear. The farmer I spoke with said that “the majority of the landowners and probably residents in general are not too crazy about [red wolf reintroduction],” though he also said most people probably don’t think about red wolves much at all. On the other hand, Suzanne Agan, an environmental science instructor at Kennesaw State University, conducted a 400-person survey and additional interviews in the region in 2018 and found that “pluralities or majorities liked red wolves, supported their restoration, and disliked ‘policy that would limit red wolf protections.’”

The federal government, given time and additional resources, might have found a way to address the concerns of local residents in a manner that preserved the red wolf program. But by 2013, a group of hard-core opponents had embarked on an effort to effectively end it outright. A man named Jett Ferebee was a prominent figure in this campaign. A real estate developer, bank board member, and investor from Greenville, he owned a large chunk of property within the recovery area. Public records show that he was not happy about the program—not happy at all—and he proved capable of causing major migraines for the feds.

Jett Ferebee is a trim, middle-aged man with graying hair, a soft Southern accent, and a penchant for hunting. With a history of donations to state Republicans, he helped amplify the conflict over wolves in eastern North Carolina, where his property sits near a string of federal wildlife refuges. He and other opponents of the red wolf program accused the FWS of fraud, of wasting taxpayer money, and of operating illegally. Among other things, they believed the agency had exceeded its authority by releasing as many red wolves as it did into the wild. They railed against the recovery experiment on an Internet message board that grew to nearly 200 pages. “We are fighting an international pro wolf, anti hunting movement guys,” Ferebee proclaimed on the forum. A few days later he wrote: “The entire Red Wolf program has been kept afloat through deception. Plain and simple.”

At one point, the conservative entertainer Ted Nugent broadcast these complaints to his millions of Facebook followers, denouncing the “dreaded USFWS punks.” At another point, a large billboard was erected on a local thruway that rebuked the FWS as a “lying neighbor nobody should trust.” (It’s unclear who was behind the billboard.) Ferebee sent out communiqués complaining about the red wolf recovery program to a large e-mail list. He provided testimony to Congress against it. Over the years, he repeatedly called for its termination. During this time, members of the Ferebee family also donated many thousands of dollars to Republican causes, including to the campaign of North Carolina Senator Thom Tillis, who would become an opponent of the program. Above all, Ferebee demanded that the FWS remove red wolves from his property.

According to government records, at least 14 wolves were trapped on Ferebee’s property by the FWS or private operators between 2001 and 2014. Most were removed and reintroduced elsewhere, but at least one died during the trapping efforts and two were later euthanized. Ferebee’s opposition to the program was summarized neatly in a 2016 local news headline: “One man can fight the federal bureaucracy!” Ferebee did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Republicans won full control of North Carolina in 2013, and critics of the red wolf program found new allies at the highest levels of state government, which aggressively turned against the program. In 2015, the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission passed resolutions calling for the FWS to declare red wolves extinct in the wild and end the reintroduction efforts. More significant, it was around this time that opponents of red wolf reintroduction found sympathizers among the FWS leadership, federal officials who were apparently willing to make dramatic changes to the program to appease its critics. These changes would soon send the world’s last wild red wolf population into a drastic decline.

Aday before I met the Hyde County farmer, I sat in the passenger seat of a Subaru with Ron Sutherland and his two kids as we traversed the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge in search of red wolves. It’s rare to see the wolves in the wild these days—the vast majority of those that are still alive are confined in zoos and other facilities, where they are bred and managed in a manner that will preserve their gene pool. Still, we spent hours driving back and forth, stopping, scoping, hoping we might catch a glimpse of this endangered predator.

Sutherland is a large man with pale eyes, fair hair, and a doctorate in environmental science and policy. He has spent most of the past decade advocating for red wolves as a staffer at the Wildlands Network, a conservation organization. As we meandered around a low-lying landscape of open fields and damp groves, he told me about the dismantling of the red wolf program. He described a small group of key FWS officials who he believes “collapsed” the program and drained it of institutional knowledge under pressure from opponents.

One official whose name surfaced many times during the course of reporting this story was Leo Miranda. He is now one of the FWS’s highest-ranking leaders. According to court records submitted by conservation groups, Miranda first interacted with Ferebee in 2013, when Ferebee sent him and others an e-mail demanding that the wolves be removed from his property. At the time, Miranda was an assistant director of the FWS’s southeastern region, an Atlanta-based position that put him in charge of the red wolf program. On numerous occasions, Ferebee contacted Miranda to ask for wolf removal, and eventually he asked for something more: He requested that the FWS issue him a “lethal take” permit, which would allow Ferebee or a designated agent to trap or shoot the wolves themselves.

Such a permit had never been issued to a private individual in the history of the program. Under FWS regulations, the agency is entitled to issue lethal take permits to private landowners to kill wolves, but only after efforts by FWS personnel to capture the wolves in question have been abandoned. Miranda wanted to give Ferebee his permit, but he was initially dissuaded, it seems, by local staff, who told him that issuing the permit could “greatly affect our abilities to conserve the red wolf.” By February 2014, however, Miranda had decided to go ahead: He personally issued that first lethal take authorization. It was a landmark moment.

A precedent had now been set. In June 2014, Ferebee posted an example of a lethal take permit request on the Internet message board he frequented, writing, “As USFWS actions continue to create enemies throughout eastern NC…I believe the below action/letter will become contagious.” Indeed, by October 2014, local opponents of the red wolf program had flooded the FWS with more than 400 lethal take permit requests, according to court records. All of this ferment preceded the death of wolf 11768F, the mother wolf gunned down in the summer of 2015 after the FWS issued another permit, this time to an anonymous private landowner.

The agency had been willing to try to remove wolves from the anonymous landowner’s property upon his request. But the landowner refused to give the FWS access, which was apparently all it took for the agency to back down. The landowner received permission to take a wolf on his land, and a couple of weeks later, wolf 11768F was shot dead.

In the midst of all this turmoil, Miranda met with Ferebee on several occasions. He traveled from his office in Atlanta to North Carolina and toured Ferebee’s property, and they remained in contact as recently as 2020. Records I obtained show that in February of that year, Miranda personally reached out to FWS staffers to retrieve documents in response to a request Ferebee had made under the Freedom of Information Act. “I will take care of that tomorrow or early next week,” he wrote Ferebee in regard to his FOIA request. In a written statement, the FWS acknowledged Miranda’s meetings with Ferebee, writing that “FWS officials often meet with stakeholders to better understand their positions.” It added that “they are not in regular contact.”

In the end, the FWS took a hammer to the red wolf program. David Rabon, the recovery coordinator for the program, says the agency removed him from the job and offered him a new gig in a different city. Not wanting to uproot his family, he declined the position and was “terminated” in January 2015 after 15 years with the agency. He believes Miranda had a direct role in his removal. The FWS declined to comment on personnel matters.

In 2015, the agency halted its coyote control efforts in the recovery area. In June of that year, the FWS announced that it would suspend the release of captive red wolves into the wild pending an examination of the program. According to a deposition, Miranda recommended the latter action to his superior, despite some dissension from field staffers. By the fall of 2015, he and other agency leaders seem to have bought into the argument, long advanced by critics, that the continued release of red wolves into the wild was a violation of regulations that the agency had promulgated in 1995 to support wolf recovery.

Though elements of the red wolf program had been validated in case law and had received approval from the Department of the Interior’s legal division, Mike Bryant, the program’s former project leader, told me that Miranda called him up to tell him that the reintroduction effort “might be illegal.”

“I said, ‘What?’” Bryant recalls. “And that is when I called my boss and said, ‘I have never been told I’ve done anything illegal in my career. Something is changing radically.’” After nearly two decades leading the red wolf program, he stepped down from his role in frustration.

“At that time, we were concerned that we lacked explicit authority to release additional wolves,” said the FWS in a written statement explaining its decisions concerning the red wolf program. “We were, and are still, concerned about ensuring the health of the captive population in order to provide for future reintroductions. We were also concerned about landowner support. These concerns culminated in a recommendation to suspend releases.”

Starting in 2015 and for the next five years, the FWS refused to release captive individuals into the wild, and the population started to plummet. Some wolves were hit by cars or died naturally, but mostly they were shot by either errant hunters or outright poachers. In a peer-reviewed study, researchers at Antioch University and the University of Wisconsin estimated that 69 red wolves were shot, whether intentionally or accidentally, between 2009 and 2018. Another 30 vanished.

While the program fizzled and the red wolf population dwindled, powerful political opponents descended like condors on a carcass. Senator Tillis helped lead the flock. He repeatedly called for an end to the red wolf program, describing it as “a failure” and denouncing the FWS as an agency with “no credibility.”

The Trump administration, meanwhile, set about rewriting the regulations that govern the red wolf program, hoping to radically reduce its mandate and confine the last remaining animals to federal land. It did not complete the job, however, before being booted from office.

Why did all this happen?

Dan Ashe, who was the director of the FWS for much of the Obama administration and oversaw its initial pullback from the program, offers an explanation: “There were just a whole series of events that were going on in and around the red wolf recovery program that warranted taking a look at whether we could be successful with the red wolf given the resources available to us and given the political environment within North Carolina,” an environment he describes as “hostile.”

The decision to end reintroductions, stop coyote control, and more was not a “political decision,” but it did have “political dimensions to it,” he continues. It was a “fully vetted, informed policy decision.”

“Look, I think the approach that was taken was the correct approach,” he says. “Is it regrettable? Yes, it is regrettable.” It was also, he adds, “a bit of a tragedy.”

Had the FWS stood its ground, things might be very different today. North Carolina’s politics have once again shifted. In 2019, Governor Roy Cooper sent a letter to the Department of the Interior voicing his support for red wolves and arguing that “changes in management strategies over the last several years have diminished the wild population to a dangerous level.” No wolf pups were born in the recovery area in 2019 or 2020.

This “regrettable” saga has transported the wild wolf population back to where it was when the program began, effectively erasing three decades and millions of dollars’ worth of reintroduction work. As we drove through the Alligator River refuge, still searching for our quarry, Ron Sutherland put it plainly: “We are somewhere between 10 and 15 heartbeats away from having no more red wolves left in the wild.”

The US Fish and Wildlife Service’s faltering commitment to enforcing the Endangered Species Act is not confined to red wolves. Look south to Florida, where the agency has permitted the destruction of tens of thousands of acres of endangered panther habitat in recent decades. Or look west to California, where the agency’s leadership recently (and perhaps illegally) greenlighted a federal irrigation plan that benefits Big Agriculture but poses a serious threat to endangered and threatened fish. The agency almost never deploys its most powerful regulatory tool, the “jeopardy opinion,” which enables it to block some damaging developments. It resists listing many kinds of animals as endangered, from the wolverine to the migratory monarch butterfly. And when a species is listed, the agency struggles to maintain adequate and up-to-date plans that can guide recovery, as required under the ESA.

“I believe that the agency for too long has not acted with sufficient urgency. I think the agency has for too long apologized for its mission,” says Mike Phillips, the former FWS employee who helped start the red wolf program. “It is hard for a team to believe in itself if its leaders don’t,” he adds. “It just doesn’t work. They need inspired leadership.”

FWS did not respond to a question concerning how the fate of the red wolf program reflects on its broader track record.

These problems are not solely the fault of the agency’s leadership, of course. The FWS faces serious systemic obstacles, among them a lack of adequate funding as well as regular political attacks from ESA opponents in the courts and in Congress. Whatever its source, though, the weak state of the agency has forced conservation groups to turn to the judicial system to ensure that the ESA is upheld.

This is what happened in North Carolina. In the fall of 2015, the Southern Environmental Law Center sued on behalf of several green groups in federal court, arguing that the FWS violated the Endangered Species Act when it started handing out lethal take permits in a lax manner that allowed landowners to kill nonproblem wolves like 11768F. Ultimately, the court agreed, permanently enjoining the FWS from such practices. In November 2020, conservationists sued the FWS again over its policy of not releasing new red wolves into the wild. In January 2021, the conservationists prevailed when a federal judge issued a preliminary injunction prohibiting the agency from continuing to prevent the release of captive wolves; the judge also ordered it to rapidly develop a new plan to restart the reintroduction efforts. Clearly, from the court’s perspective, the FWS has not been following the letter of the law.

In February, the FWS moved two male red wolves from a Florida wildlife refuge and let them loose in Alligator River. Following the federal court’s ruling, it released another eight wolves in May. Though four of the wolves have already been killed by cars, these new releases have reignited the hopes of conservationists, who have watched in horror all these years as the red wolf population plummeted. They hope that under President Biden, the program will finally be restored. This time, however, everyone is aware of the urgent need to build local support.

Bryant says he wishes the FWS had had enough resources to hire community outreach specialists from the start. Sutherland believes the agency should initiate robust incentive programs for landowners who make their property available to wolves. Adrian Treves, a biologist at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, points to models in Sweden that pay reindeer herding communities to tolerate predators. “Science and policymakers,” he wrote in a 2014 paper, “have concluded that promoting human tolerance is critical to the success of predator conservation efforts.” In fact, the FWS has recently started to experiment with such programs in the five-county recovery area.

“All sides recognize that landowner cooperation is key to success,” says Kelly Davis, a Hyde County resident who sits on the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission. However, whether enough cooperation will be forthcoming and whether certain local opponents can be brought around are very much open questions.

“A hard sell, I think,” said the Hyde County farmer I spoke with. “I don’t know what they could do to win people back.”

The sun was setting on the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge when Sutherland turned the car around to make one last pass through a string of open fields where red wolves are known to roam. As the car lurched along, I suddenly saw low gray shapes silhouetted against the orange glow of the horizon. I pointed at them urgently, and Sutherland hit the brakes. He whipped out his binoculars and, after several long moments, came to a conclusion: two red wolves. In the wild! There they were, a couple of skinny things, perhaps a fifth of the entire population still roaming free. One was lying in the grass; the other was inspecting the shrubs. Sutherland’s kids gazed in amazement, and together we slunk out of the car to take a closer look.

We stared intently, not wanting to miss a moment. One of the wolves sauntered off into the brush. The other lingered, lounged, stood up, stretched, assessed its surroundings, relieved itself, eased into a trot, gained speed, and finally disappeared into the sun’s fierce glare. The whole thing lasted maybe 30 minutes, but during those moments it was difficult to feel anything but gratitude for the US Fish and Wildlife Service, which labored so hard for so long to restore this wild animal on behalf of the American people. Perhaps it will someday find the fortitude to do so again.

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