- Associated Press - Tuesday, October 27, 2015

DURHAM, N.C. (AP) - Federal officials overseeing the only wild population of red wolves announced the formation Tuesday of a planning team that includes representatives on different sides of the issue.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service also said a review of the reintroduction program in eastern North Carolina will take at least until summer 2016. A decision on whether to end or modify the program has been in the works for months.

Wildlife officials estimate that between 50 and 75 wolves currently roam the wild, the lowest number since the late 1990s. Once common around the Southeast, the red wolf had been considered extinct in the wild as of 1980 because of factors including hunting and habitat loss. Releases of red wolves bred in captivity started in 1987.

The reconvened recovery team includes staff members from the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission, which passed a resolution earlier this year asking federal officials to end the reintroduction program and declare the wolves extinct in the wild.

The 13-member team also includes a representative from Defenders of Wildlife, a group that signed a September letter threatening to sue over the handling of the wolf recovery.

Other members include a county official, a landowner and several researchers.

In a previous incarnation, the recovery team helped design the plan to reintroduce the wolf to the wild and last met in 2008.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service regional director Cindy Dohner said the new team will address shortcomings related to landowner input and bring together a wide range of expertise.

Referencing the “controversy surrounding the project,” North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission executive director Gordon Myers said that “the diversity on the team is critical.”

Opponents of the reintroduction effort cite an outside evaluation from late 2014 that found flaws in the recovery program, and they say the wolves pose problems when they roam onto private land.

However, conservationists argue that the program has been successful and accuse the federal government of backing away from an active recovery role.

Over the summer, the wildlife service announced that it will not release any more captive-bred wolves to bolster the wild population while it continues its review.

Derb Carter, a lawyer with the Southern Environmental Law Center, said he’s concerned about the makeup of the recovery team: “While the red wolf continues to decline, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service says now it’s set up a new recovery team with members who not only oppose the recovery, but also the existence, of the red wolf.”

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