RALEIGH, N.C. — Conservationists told a federal judge Wednesday that an imminent government plan to shrink the territory of the only red wolves living in the wild would hasten the animal's extinction in violation of federal law.
Lawyers for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, however, countered that new rules for the red wolf program, set to be finalized next month, mean that the conservationists' legal arguments are moot — and that they must file another lawsuit if they want to challenge the new plans.
The current lawsuit by the Red Wolf Coalition, Defenders of Wildlife and Animal Welfare Institute argues that the federal government has neglected the wolves in recent years, allowing their population to decline. An estimated 35 wild red wolves remain — all in eastern North Carolina — down from about 120 a decade ago. Another 200 currently live in captive breeding programs.
With the litigation unfolding, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced the new plan in June to limit the wolves' territory to federal land in just two counties and lift restrictions on killing wolves that stray from that area. The new rules implementing the plan are set to be finalized by Nov. 30. Until then, red wolves are governed by existing rules.
One of the lawyers leading the case argued Wednesday that the wolf's decline has been accelerated by federal decisions in recent years to halt releases of captive-born wolves and to abandon efforts to sterilize coyotes that compete for territory.
Sierra Weaver of the Southern Environmental Law Center urged the judge to order those approaches to be revived, along with issuing farther-reaching declaratory relief to limit what she called the more drastic effects of the new rules.
She argued the wildlife service's neglect of the wolves violates federal law including the Endangered Species Act, and that the harm would be extended by the new rules.
"What the Fish and Wildlife Service would do is simply cement those violations by writing them into new rules," she said.
In court, U.S. District Judge Terrence Boyle noted that the proposal would limit the wolves to coastal land that's already prone to flooding and vulnerable to erosion, especially during hurricanes.
"Who's going to teach the wolves how to swim?" he asked.
A Justice Department lawyer representing the Fish and Wildlife Service, Lesley Lawrence-Hammer, argued that the agency has been working hard to revise its management plan in an effort to preserve the species. Further, she said, the plaintiffs' challenge is moot because it was brought under current red wolf rules that are being replaced.
Within a few weeks, she said, "the rule at issue in this case will ... no longer exist." Further, she said, the conservation groups are making "an extraordinary and unjustifiable" request that the judge give the federal agency specific orders on which conservation approaches to take.
Currently, the wolves roam across five eastern North Carolina counties where private landowners need special permission to kill or trap the animals. Some landowners argue the wolves are nuisance animals that frequently wander onto their farms or scare game animals off hunting land. They also question whether they are a species unto themselves or a hybrid.
The conservation groups argue that a small but vocal group of landowners has influenced the federal government to scale back its red wolf efforts.
In 2016, Boyle sided with the conservation groups when he issued a preliminary injunction that essentially halted all authorizations for landowners to trap or kill the wolves. That injunction remains in effect under the framework of the current red wolf rules, so it doesn't necessarily apply to the new proposal.
Once common across the Southeast, the red wolf had been considered extinct in the wild as of 1980. Releases of captive-bred wolves started in 1987.