RALEIGH, N.C. — Federal authorities violated a federal law aimed at preserving endangered species by planning to shrink the territory of the only red wolves living in the wild, a federal judge ruled in blocking a move that environmentalists said would hasten the animal's demise.
U.S. District Judge Terrence Boyle ruled in an order signed Sunday that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service also violated the Endangered Species Act by authorizing private landowners to kill the canine predators even if they aren't threatening humans, livestock or pets.
The ruling represents a victory for environmental groups who argued in their lawsuit that the federal government neglected the wolves for years and allowed their population to decline. About 35 red wolves remain in the wild, all in eastern North Carolina. They numbered about 120 a decade ago. About 200 live in captive breeding programs.
The wildlife service announced a plan in June to constrict the wolves' territory from five counties to federal land in two counties, as well as lifting restrictions on killing wolves that stray from that area. The new rules implementing the plan were set to be finalized by Nov. 30.
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.
"It is undisputed that the reintroduction of the red wolf into the Red Wolf Recovery Area is not without its challenges, but absent a change in Congress' mandate or a decision to delist or reclassify the red wolf" from the endangered species list, the wildlife agency's decisions amount to a failure to uphold its conservation duties, Boyle wrote.
The groups who filed the lawsuit in 2015 — the Red Wolf Coalition, Defenders of Wildlife and Animal Welfare Institute — said the wildlife service's proposal would reduce the protected range of the red wolves by almost 90 percent. In 2016, a group of 30 scientists condemned such a scenario because the limited area proposed by USFWS could not support a viable population of red wolves and its proposal was inconsistent with the best available science.
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. Boyle's ruling Sunday made that injunction permanent.
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.
Follow Emery P. Dalesio on Twitter at http://twitter.com/emerydalesio. His work can be found at https://apnews.com/search/emery%20dalesio