The Good Government Can Do and the Tragedy of Red Wolves

One of the more pernicious things about Ronald Reagan and his presidency, and there are many, was his quip in his first inaugural address that “government is not the solution to our problem, government is the problem.” This was a dumb thing said by a dumb man but unfortunately it has been the animating element of the Republican Party for my entire life (that and racism). You can see this playing out in the lunacy of Texas Governor Greg Abbott saying “we must rely on personal responsibility, not government mandates” in his blocking of school districts from imposing mask mandates in schools as the Delta variant of Covid-19 rips through the state.

Aside from preventing obvious common sense measures in protecting people during a pandemic, this brain dead philosophy also seeps into government employees as well. The Nation had a really interesting article recently on the plight of Red Wolves in the U.S. The story by Jimmy Tobias notes that after being driven nearly to extinction in their native habitat in the southeastern portion of the U.S., thanks to the Endangered Species Act and the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) the wolves made a spectacular comeback:

A lithe, long-legged carnivore endemic to the woodlands of the southern and eastern United States, red wolves were once on the doorstep of extinction. Extirpated from most of their range by varied forms of persecution—poisoning, shooting, trapping, and the destabilizing impacts of development—they had been like dinosaurs watching the asteroid arrive. There were fewer than 20 true red wolves left in the wild when the US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), which oversees the Endangered Species Act, swooped in to save them in the 1970s. From that meager remnant, a decades-long federal reintroduction effort boosted the wild population about tenfold, all of which lived in or around the 152,000-acre Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge on the North Carolina coast. The first major experiment in large carnivore restoration in US history, the red wolf program would ultimately help inspire and inform the successful reintroduction of the gray wolf to Yellowstone National Park in 1995. The red wolf program offered hope that these keen animals, with their strong family bonds and fascinating social behaviors, might have a future on this continent.

What a great success! The Endangered Species Act worked, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife service instituted a great plan that lead to a success all Americans should rejoice in. It should be said that species re-introduction to the wild is very hard to do and the fact that the Red Wolves recovered to such a degree is of great testament to the plan created by the FWS, a government agency. (Although I don’t want to blow too much smoke up the ass of the FWS as they have not been great with other wolf re-introduction programs However, this is where the turn comes in . . .

But those achievements are now in ruin. This is the story of how and why the FWS, our country’s eminent conservation agency, walked away from its red wolf reintroduction program and let the wild wolf population collapse. The retreat started during the presidency of Barack Obama and continued under Donald Trump. Today there are maybe nine, maybe 10, maybe 20 true red wolves left rambling across the landscape.

So, to recap, the Red Wolf population dwindled to 10-20 left in the wild, rebounded spectacularly thanks to the US Fish and Wildlife Service and has now collapsed again to about 10-20 wolves because of the actions by the same Fish and Wildlife service. This graphic from the article highlights the absurdity of this situation in a way no words can

So what happened? Basically, asshole landowners and the timidity of the leadership of the Fish and Wildlife Service. Tobias notes:

The trouble began in earnest, he believes, in 1990. The red wolf reintroduction program had been running for several years, and the wolf population had spread from Alligator River into the surrounding landscape, where the FWS was working with some cooperative landowners. One day in October of that year, a farmer shot and killed a red wolf on his land because, he claimed in a court filing, he feared that the animal would threaten his livestock. The feds prosecuted him for the killing, and he pleaded guilty. The incident stirred up animosity in the community.

“That really put a bad taste in all the landowners’ mouths around here,” said the farmer I interviewed. It also led to a lawsuit by landowners and two counties challenging the authority of the federal government to limit the killing of red wolves on private land. The challenge failed.

Another controversy emerged in 2013, when conservation groups sued in federal court to reverse a decision by local government that allowed permissive coyote hunting practices in the five-county recovery area, including nighttime hunts. The suit argued that too many red wolves were being killed by hunters who mistook them for their smaller canine cousins. The conservationists ultimately settled with the North Carolina authorities, resulting in an agreement that outlawed nighttime coyote hunts, among other measures. Such restrictions fueled a growing fear that the red wolf program posed a danger to property rights.

The federal government, given time and additional resources, might have found a way to address the concerns of local residents in a manner that preserved the red wolf program. But by 2013, a group of hard-core opponents had embarked on an effort to effectively end it outright. A man named Jett Ferebee was a prominent figure in this campaign. A real estate developer, bank board member, and investor from Greenville, he owned a large chunk of property within the recovery area. Public records show that he was not happy about the program—not happy at all—and he proved capable of causing major migraines for the feds.

Wealthy landowners don’t like wolves so this conservation success story starts to go south but why did the FWS give in, why didn’t they fight for their program? As Tobias states

One official whose name surfaced many times during the course of reporting this story was Leo Miranda. He is now one of the FWS’s highest-ranking leaders. According to court records submitted by conservation groups, Miranda first interacted with Ferebee in 2013, when Ferebee sent him and others an e-mail demanding that the wolves be removed from his property. At the time, Miranda was an assistant director of the FWS’s southeastern region, an Atlanta-based position that put him in charge of the red wolf program. On numerous occasions, Ferebee contacted Miranda to ask for wolf removal, and eventually he asked for something more: He requested that the FWS issue him a “lethal take” permit, which would allow Ferebee or a designated agent to trap or shoot the wolves themselves.

Such a permit had never been issued to a private individual in the history of the program. Under FWS regulations, the agency is entitled to issue lethal take permits to private landowners to kill wolves, but only after efforts by FWS personnel to capture the wolves in question have been abandoned. Miranda wanted to give Ferebee his permit, but he was initially dissuaded, it seems, by local staff, who told him that issuing the permit could “greatly affect our abilities to conserve the red wolf.” By February 2014, however, Miranda had decided to go ahead: He personally issued that first lethal take authorization. It was a landmark moment.

A precedent had now been set. In June 2014, Ferebee posted an example of a lethal take permit request on the Internet message board he frequented, writing, “As USFWS actions continue to create enemies throughout eastern NC…I believe the below action/letter will become contagious.” Indeed, by October 2014, local opponents of the red wolf program had flooded the FWS with more than 400 lethal take permit requests, according to court records. All of this ferment preceded the death of wolf 11768F, the mother wolf gunned down in the summer of 2015 after the FWS issued another permit, this time to an anonymous private landowner.

The agency had been willing to try to remove wolves from the anonymous landowner’s property upon his request. But the landowner refused to give the FWS access, which was apparently all it took for the agency to back down. The landowner received permission to take a wolf on his land, and a couple of weeks later, wolf 11768F was shot dead.

. . .

In the end, the FWS took a hammer to the red wolf program. David Rabon, the recovery coordinator for the program, says the agency removed him from the job and offered him a new gig in a different city. Not wanting to uproot his family, he declined the position and was “terminated” in January 2015 after 15 years with the agency. He believes Miranda had a direct role in his removal. The FWS declined to comment on personnel matters.

In 2015, the agency halted its coyote control efforts in the recovery area. In June of that year, the FWS announced that it would suspend the release of captive red wolves into the wild pending an examination of the program. According to a deposition, Miranda recommended the latter action to his superior, despite some dissension from field staffers. By the fall of 2015, he and other agency leaders seem to have bought into the argument, long advanced by critics, that the continued release of red wolves into the wild was a violation of regulations that the agency had promulgated in 1995 to support wolf recovery.

Basically, the FWS backed down, they deferred to the wealthy land owners because of a combination of cowardice, apathy, and a right wing onslaught. The FWS forgot about the good government can do in the name of the public interest. The case of the Red Wolves is a perfect case study in the perniciousness of the forty year conservative assault on government. Government agencies promote the interests of private parties as opposed to the public because they have been beaten down over the last four decades. It is long overdue for us who believe in the efficacy of government to act on behalf of the public interest to push back.

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