Conservationists have asked a federal court to intervene after they say wildlife officials failed to prevent the only wild population of red wolves from dwindling.
A lawsuit filed Thursday argues that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service violated the Endangered Species Act when it gave landowners permission on two occasions to kill wolves without meeting strict legal requirements. It asks a judge to force the service to stop such incomplete kill approvals and to perform a past-due review of the wolves' endangered status.
The lawsuit also questions why federal wildlife officials have ceased to introduce captive-bred wolves into the wild and to sterilize coyotes that sometimes interbreed with red wolves, steps that had previously aided the federal recovery program.
"Defendants have failed to manage the dramatically reduced red wolf population so as to ensure its survival and promote its recovery," the lawsuit states.
Federal officials estimate that the population of red wolves roaming eastern North Carolina has dwindled in recent months to between about 50 and 75. Previously, the number had hovered around 100 for more than a decade.
It's illegal to kill the endangered wolves except in narrow circumstances, though sometimes they are accidentally shot by hunters. Sixty-one wild red wolves have died since 2012, including 24 from gunshots and nine from car accidents, according to federal figures.
Two authorizations for landowners to kill wolves are at the heart of the lawsuit by the Red Wolf Coalition, Defenders of Wildlife and Animal Welfare Coalition. The wildlife service and two top officials are named as defendants.
In June 2015, a landowner shot and killed a female red wolf after receiving permission from federal officials. The lawsuit argues the wolf hadn't exhibited harmful behavior that's required for authorizing a kill.
A news release from the wildlife service at the time said permission was granted "in full legal compliance with the Endangered Species Act" after the landowner tried to capture the wolf through non-lethal means.
The conservationists say the wildlife service gave another kill authorization in a February 2014 letter without first sending its personnel to capture the animal in question as required. Apparently, no wolf was killed as a result of the authorization.
A letter to the landowner from the service noted staff biologists had previously come twice to retrieve red wolves, but he continued to see what appeared to be collared wolves. Citing staffing levels and limited access to the private property, the wildlife service authorized lethal force.
The lawsuit also said that the wildlife service failed to complete a review of the species' endangered status that was due in 2012.
The wildlife service said Friday it was preparing a statement regarding the lawsuit.
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.
Federal officials have been studying the red wolf reintroduction program in recent months with an eye toward making changes or possibly ending it. They recently said a decision would take at least until summer 2016.
Opponents of efforts to reintroduce the wolves in North Carolina cite an outside evaluation from 2014 that found flaws in the recovery program, and they say the wolves pose problems when they roam onto private land. The North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission has asked the federal government to end the program.