RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper is urging federal authorities not to reduce protections for endangered red wolves, a species unique to the state.
In a letter sent to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Monday, Gov. Roy Cooper asked the agency to maintain the current five-county conservation area for the endangered species.
"The wild red wolf is part of the cultural and economic fabric of our state and is the only wolf unique to the United States." Cooper said in the letter, later adding that he had directed agencies under his control to work with federal wildlife officials to help with conservation efforts. "There is a viable path forward for North Carolina's red wolves living in the wild."
Only about 35 red wolves remain in the wild — all in eastern North Carolina — down from 120 a decade ago. Another 200 live in captive breeding programs. 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.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in June proposed to reduce the current conservation area to federal land in two counties and lift restrictions on killing wolves that stray from that area. A public comment period ended this week, and federal officials estimated it would take until November to finalize new rules.
Until then, red wolves are governed by existing rules and other restrictions ordered by a federal judge. That pending litigation could also hamper federal efforts to impose new rules.
In a letter accompanying Gov. Cooper's request to federal authorities, Department of Natural and Cultural Resources secretary Susi Hamilton warned Monday the proposed changes could again lead to the species' extinction within two decades.
A U.S Fish and Wildlife Service spokesman declined to comment on Gov. Cooper's letter.
Gov. Cooper's request clashes with the stance taken by North Carolina's Republican appointee-controlled Wildlife Resources Commission, which opposes federal red wolf recovery efforts. The North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission asked the federal government to end the red wolf conservation program in 2015.
Since taking office in 2017, Gov. Cooper has appointed five members of the commission. The 14 other members were appointed by Republican leaders in the legislature and former Republican Gov. Pat McCrory.
Conservationists are applauding Gov. Cooper's request to the federal government to continue the program, which in recent years has seen more criticism than open support from state government officials.
"We think that the combination of the governor and the really strong public support should be enough under any kind of logical scenario to change the narrative for the leadership of the Fish and Wildlife Service," said Ron Sutherland of conservation group Wildlands Network, a supporter of the red wolf conservation project.
Sutherland, a Durham-based conservation scientist, said popular support combined with the governor's help might save the program, pointing out that nearly 55,000 public comments in support of the project were issued to the Fish and Wildlife Service in 2017.
North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission Director Gordon Myers said in an email Tuesday that the federal proposal to reduce the size of the conservation area doesn't do enough — they would like to see the program completely eliminated. Myers called termination the "most reasonable and achievable alternative."