Don't shoot. Don't even touch.
That was the message delivered last week by U.S. District Judge Terrence Boyle, as he ordered a temporary injunction that both restricts the federal government's ability to remove endangered red wolves from private property and prohibits landowners from shooting members of the species.
Boyle's ruling—which also included scathing criticism of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for what he characterized as its failure to protect the wild red wolf population that calls eastern North Carolina home—is being celebrated by advocates, including members of the Red Wolf Coalition, which brought the agency to court for, among other things, its 2015 authorization of a private landowner to kill a breeding female, which the group claimed was in direct violation of the Endangered Species Act.
Clearly, Boyle agreed.
In his ruling, he wrote that the feds' efforts—or, in this case, lack thereof—have failed to "adequately provide for the protection of red wolves and may in fact jeopardize the population's survival in the wild."
Thursday's decision is seen as critical to the survival of the species; wolf advocates worried that their "victory" earlier this month, when the USFWS announced that it would not abandon the decades-old Red Wolf Recovery Program, was hollow and the feds' intentions were insincere.
Cindy Dohner, the USFWS's southeast regional director, contended that she and the government were "committed to red wolf recovery." But after unveiling plans that seemingly focused solely on securing the captive population of two hundred-plus wolves living in zoos across the country, advocates argued that the shift in emphasis—and the feds' plans to decrease the wolves' home from a five-county tract to federal land in Dare County, which, in conservation scientist Ron Sutherland's view, "at most could support ten to fifteen wolves"—represented a pathway toward the species' extinction.
"Any wolves that leave federal land will be captured and returned to captivity or possibly just shot by landowners who would face no repercussions if the wolves were outside of the new restricted recovery area," Sutherland told the INDY last month.
Boyle made clear Thursday that any tampering with the red wolf population would represent a violation of his order. So, at least for now, the state's wolves are free to roam—and live—without fear of capture or death.
"This is a great day for red wolves and for anyone who loves nature in eastern North Carolina," says Southern Environmental Law Center senior attorney Sierra Weaver. "The court was clear that it's the Fish and Wildlife Service's job to conserve this endangered species, not drive it to extinction."