RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — Federal officials announced plans Monday to sharply reduce the territory of the world's only wild population of red wolves — a move that conservationists say will relegate the endangered animals to zoos.
Starting in late 2017 the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service plans to limit wild red wolves to a federal wildlife refuge and some adjacent land in eastern North Carolina's Dare County, rather than the five-county area where they currently roam.
Wolves that stray beyond those boundaries would be captured and placed in a captive breeding program, said Leopoldo Miranda, an assistant regional director for the wildlife service. The new plan is contingent on modifying current program rules after a public comment period.
Federal officials had been considering whether to continue, modify or abandon the program after a lengthy review and complaints from some landowners that the wolves cause problems when they stray onto private land.
They also said Monday that the wild population of wolves has dwindled to about 45, less than half its post-reintroduction peak.
Conservationists decried the new plan.
"They're making Dare County into a glorified holding pen for a handful of red wolves," said Ron Sutherland, a scientist with the Wildlands Network who has studied the wolves. "Any wolves that make the mistake of leaving the federal lands will get shipped off to zoos as punishment."
Sutherland estimated the wildlife refuge could hold 15 wolves at most.
Federal officials said a significant motivation for the plan is to double the current captive population of approximately 200 red wolves to make it sustainable. They say mixing wild wolves with those in captivity will help increase breeding pairs.
"The most stunning data shows the captive population is not secure. We believed it was, but it is not. If we continue with the status quo, we will likely lose the captive population," said Cindy Dohner, the wildlife service's southeast regional director.
The wildlife service said it will also look for new areas elsewhere to introduce red wolves to the wild, though conservationists described that idea as far-flung given how complex it would be to negotiate with a state for new territory.
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 wild population peaked at around 130 wolves in 2006, according to court documents, and stayed above 100 for years.
But the population has declined for reasons that federal officials say aren't entirely clear. Data shows 15 or more wolves have died in each of the past three years from a variety of reasons including gunshots and vehicle crashes. It's generally illegal to kill the endangered animals.
A lawyer who's taken the Fish and Wildlife Service to court over the program's direction slammed the new plan.
"The Fish and Wildlife Service plan is tantamount to sentencing red wolves to zoos," said Derb Carter of the Southern Environmental Law Center. "The Service is abandoning the red wolf in the wild and abandoning its responsibilities to recover this endangered species."
On Wednesday, conservationists represented by Carter's group are due in federal court to argue the wildlife service was neglecting its duty even before Monday's announcement. Their request for emergency intervention hinges on arguments that the federal government twice gave landowners permission to kill wolves without meeting strict legal requirements since 2014. One wolf was shot as a result.
The conservation groups note that the federal government has already halted practices that helped boost the population such as releasing captive-born pups into the wild and sterilizing coyotes that sometimes interbreed with the wolves.
Lawyers for the federal government have countered that they have continued to track wolves with radio collars and provide veterinary care under a budget of more than $1 million in 2016. They have also argued that the 200 or so red wolves living in captivity mean the wild wolves are "not essential to the continued existence of the species."
Follow Jonathan Drew at twitter.com/jonldrew