The only remaining wild red wolves in the world are in jeopardy because the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has failed to protect them as required in accordance with the Endangered Species Act according to the lawsuit environmentalists filed in federal court.

Three conservation groups report that Fish and Wildlife officials in northeastern North Carolina acted illegally twice in the past two years when they gave private landowners permission to kill red wolves.

Also coming to light are their decisions to stop introducing rare red wolf pups who are born in captivity, into the wild, while ending the program that effectively sterilized coyotes that interbreed with red wolves. “The wild survival of America’s rarest wolf depends on whether the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service acts responsibly and fulfills its legal duty,” Sierra Weaver of the Southern Environmental Law Center, attorney for the conservation groups, said in a news release.

Fish and Wildlife have been considering whether they will improve or abandon its 28-year-old red wolf recovery program currently spanning five counties based out of the wildlife refuge lands in the Albemarle Peninsula. The effort has long been unpopular with farmers and deer hunters in the region. According to recent study by the nonprofit Wildlife Management Institute in November 2014 aimed criticism on the agency for its failures in science, management and public relations. The wolves’ numbers have plunged in recent years from a peak of around 130 in 2006 to an estimated 50 to 75 animals last summer.

Agency officials have mostly declined to comment on this topic. “We are currently reviewing the entire red wolf program to get the science right and work towards recovery with our partners,” Leo Miranda, an assistant regional director in the Fish and Wildlife Southeast Regional Office, said by email. “A newly established recovery team is working to address the conservation of this species on the landscape.” The lawsuit was filed by the Red Wolf Coalition, Defenders of Wildlife and the Animal Welfare Institute who are outraged by the Fish and Wildlife upon allowing private landowners to kill wolves without first making attempts to trap the animals alive. A landowner was allowed in June to shoot a female wolf that had previously produced four litters with 16 wolf pups, the lawsuit said.

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