The United States Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) has decided to put the brakes on a recovery program for one of the most endangered species of canine in all of North America, the red wolf. And while the Service assures us that this does not spell the end for the program entirely, it has done little to quell the ire of conservation groups.

"Make no mistake, this is the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service abandoning endangered red wolves while they stand at the brink of extinction," Brett Hartl, the endangered species policy director at the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD), said in a recent statement.

As things stand, it is estimated that a little more than 100 red wolves (Canis rufus) in North America, with a maximum of 75 located a peninsula in North Carolina - the product of an experimental release in the 1980s. The recent decision made by the FWS was to indefinitely suspend plans to introduce more red wolves to those wilds while the effectiveness and impact of the program is investigated.

"These actions are the next steps in our commitment to get the science right," Cindy Dohner, the Service's Southeast Regional Director said when the suspension of the reintroduction program was first announced.

"There will likely be some who will suggest we are walking away from recovery efforts for the red wolf and simultaneously there will be others who might say we're holding on too tight," she added. "We have a responsibility under the ESA to provide good management and shepherd the conservation and recovery of this species to the best of our ability. What we are announcing today holds true to those responsibilities and the expectations of our citizens and partners." (Scroll to read on...)

According to Dhoner, the aim of the suspension and future investigations are to "rebuild trust with our neighbors in those communities, our state partners and many stakeholders." This is largely because soon after the 1980s introduction, several young red wolves began to attack farm animals and threaten hunters. These 'problem wolves,' according to the FWS, are far from the norm, and their overall impact on the region is heavily overshadowed by the work of coyotes and hybrid species.

However, this hasn't stopped fearful farmers to complain and hunters to chafe under FWS-enforced restrictions - a story remarkably similar to the ongoing national debate concerning the North American gray wolf (Canis lupis). Recent restrictions on coyote hunting in order to avoid mistaken red wolf shootings have only exacerbated the issue.

In light of this, the NC Wildlife Resources Commission (NCWRC) demanded that the FWS take a hard look at its wolf recovery program - the result of which was a review by the nonprofit Wildlife Management Institute (WMI), completed this past November.

"The Wildlife Management Institute's review identified a number of areas where we have been successful, a number of areas that need improvement, and highlighted a number of uncertainties and serious challenges for the ultimate recovery of the red wolf," Dhoner explained, adding that the Service's eventual conclusion was that more review was needed.

Gordon Myers, executive director of NCWRC, said in a recent teleconference that one of the main strategies to be tested before any new wolves are released is an upgrade to the wolves' radio collars. This would allow officials to quickly identify 'problem' wolves for recapture, even as the rest of the experimental population learns to stay out of trouble. (Scroll to read on...)

Still, for many conservationists, the FWS' decision reeks of abandonment, especially with no concrete dates set for when the program will be resumed.

"The emphasis and tone have moved far away from the conservation and recovery of an endangered species," Sierra Weaver, an attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center in Chapel Hill, NC, told The American Association for the Advancement of Science. "[The Service] seems to be preparing the public for its eventual extinction in the wild."

"The agency can dress it up in bureaucrat-speak but there's no avoiding the fact that the recovery program for the red wolf... is being left to wither on the vine," Hartl added. "More study of the red wolf recovery program is not needed - we know how to recover and restore red wolves to the landscape... What is needed right now is for the agency to stop appeasing radical right-wing elements that despise wildlife and want to see the Endangered Species Act repealed."

For more great nature science stories and general news, please visit our sister site, Headlines and Global News (HNGN).

 - follow Brian on Twitter @BS_ButNoBS