- Associated Press - Wednesday, March 2, 2016

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) - A panel convened to help chart the future of the dwindling wild population of red wolves has struggled to agree on how to move forward, with a recently departed member saying it’s a sign of the government’s failure to protect the species.

The lack of progress caused biologist Ben Prater, who works for the nonprofit group Defenders of Wildlife, to step down from the red wolf recovery team organized late last year by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The 13-member team had trouble agreeing on whether the program should be continued or abandoned, making it difficult to develop recommendations for the government, Prater said in an interview. His resignation letter was sent Tuesday.

The inability to agree was acknowledged in a letter last week to team members from the Wildlife Service, which instead urged them to present a range of options, Prater said.

“You did have folks at the table that were working in direct opposition of the red wolf recovery. We were hopeful that by at least coming to the table, we could collaborate and work through some of that,” Prater said in an interview. “But that has eluded us.”

The government launched the recovery team with the goal of gathering stakeholders ranging from biologists to landowners to advise the government officials, who will ultimately decide the fate of the red wolf program.

Pete Benjamin, a field supervisor for the Fish and Wildlife Service, said he was disappointed with the decision by Prater’s group.

“They were a valued member of the team, but we will have to move on,” he said.

Benjamin said the agency hired a new biologist who will join several other staff members on the red wolf program starting Monday, in contrast to conservationists’ complaint that staff had been allowed to dwindle.

Federal officials estimate that the population of red wolves roaming eastern North Carolina has dropped in recent months to between about 50 and 75. Previously, the number had hovered around 100 for more than a decade.

Once common across 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.

Conservationists filed a federal lawsuit late last year arguing that the government has failed to prevent the decline by curtailing fieldwork that had helped the population, including the introduction of captive-bred wolves.

A biologist who’s not involved in the federal lawsuit or the recovery team said he fears that the recovery team was put together as a public-relations effort while the red wolf population is allowed to stagnate.

“There are a lot of good people on the recovery team, but if they’re not having the opportunity to steer the program in the direction of recovery, then why are you calling it a ‘recovery team?’” said Ron Sutherland, who works for the Wildlands Network.

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