- Associated Press - Thursday, November 20, 2014

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) - An independent review released Thursday found flaws in a 27-year program to restore the endangered red wolf, including the size of the habitat, inadequate understanding of population trends and poor coordination with local program managers.

The review by the nonprofit Wildlife Management Institute was commissioned by federal wildlife officials as they consider whether to continue maintaining the world’s only wild red wolf population in eastern North Carolina. A decision on how to proceed is expected in early 2015, and officials are also considering nearly 48,000 comments submitted during a period for the public to weigh in.

Once common in the Southeast, the red wolf had been considered extinct in the wild as of 1980 due to factors including hunting and loss of habitat. In 1987, wildlife officials released red wolves bred in captivity back into the wild in North Carolina. About 100 of them now roam five eastern North Carolina counties, and about 200 are in captive breeding programs.

The new 171-page report said the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service underestimated how much habitat was needed to support the wolves and noted that the animals began drifting outside of wildlife refuges shortly after they were first released. Wolves can harm livestock and are sometimes mistaken for coyotes when they roam onto private lands.

“There is no theoretical or practical reason to believe that red wolves will constrain their activities or movements to a jurisdictional boundary,” the report said.

The report suggested that federal officials should consider releasing wolves in other areas that were once part of its range.

WMI researchers said they were expecting federal monitoring efforts to have yielded more information on the wild population of wolves, including a better understanding of recent population declines. Monitoring efforts include tracking wolves with radio collars.

So far this year, 12 red wolves have died in the wild, including three from gunshots. It’s a crime to kill a red wolf except in certain circumstances, such as a farmer protecting livestock.

The report also said that local managers in the restoration program didn’t receive adequate oversight or support from regional officials. The report says that the budget hasn’t always been sufficient and that better outreach is needed to garner public support.

“We would characterize the situation as one where local staff did their best to ‘make it work’ and build constructive relationships with local landowners,” the report said.

Leopoldo Miranda, an assistant regional director for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, acknowledged the critical tone of the report.

“We’ve begun a detailed review of the evaluation and take its critical analysis seriously,” he said.

The report was criticized by an attorney for a conservationist group that recently took state officials to court over hunting rules meant to protect the wolves. A settlement approved last week bans nighttime hunting of similar-looking coyotes in the five counties and increases coyote-hunting permit requirements.

“Wildlife Management Institute, Inc.’s report does not communicate the tremendous progress of the Red Wolf Recovery program, one of the most successful wildlife recovery programs in history … ,” attorney Tara Zuardo of the Animal Welfare Institute said in an email.

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