RALEIGH, N.C. -- Illegal killings and longstanding political resistance have undercut the return of two species of endangered wolves to the wild, frustrating government efforts that already cost more than $80 million but have failed to meet recovery targets.
The number of red wolves roaming the forests of North Carolina has plunged to fewer than three dozen in recent years -- the most precarious position of any U.S. wolf species.
In the Southwest, a record number of Mexican gray wolves turned up dead in 2018, tempering an increase in the overall population to 131 animals.
With such small numbers in the wild, biologists say poaching has a big effect. Over the last two decades, more than half of Mexican wolf deaths and about one in four red wolf deaths resulted from gunshots or were otherwise deemed illegal, The Associated Press found.
"It's basically a numbers game," said Brady McGee, who heads the Mexican wolf recovery program for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. "As we're trying to recover these wolves in the wild, illegal mortalities are still one of the biggest threats."
For red wolves, gunshot deaths are a problem particularly when hunting season collides with wolf breeding season, said Pete Benjamin, a Fish and Wildlife Service field supervisor in North Carolina.
Wolf recovery is further hindered by political opposition over attacks on livestock or game animals and longstanding arguments over whether the wolves should be treated as distinct species warranting continued protection.
With no changes to current management, the wild population of red wolves likely will be lost within the next decade, according to federal officials. The Mexican gray wolf recovery team is more confident and hopes to double the number in the wild over several years.
When federal officials began recovery efforts in the late 1960s, only remnant populations remained outside Alaska -- Western gray wolves along the U.S.-Canada border, red wolves on the Gulf Coast of Texas and Louisiana and Mexican wolves south of the border.
Reintroduction programs faced stiff resistance from ranchers and rural communities, a hurdle that so far the Western gray wolf alone has overcome.
The main reason for their success is location: Western gray wolves were reintroduced to areas with expansive public lands and plenty of deer, elk and other prey.
"The habitat was so good that it didn't matter if half the people hated them," said Ed Bangs, a retired federal biologist who led recovery efforts in the Northern Rockies.
By contrast, Mexican wolves live in isolated desert mountain ranges, where year-round livestock grazing increases their odds of running into trouble.
Legal protections for red wolves have been solidified by the recent scientific conclusion that they're a distinct species, not a wolf-coyote hybrid as some landowners argued. But conservationists worry the news comes too late, with only 25 to 30 of the canines left in the wild and 200 or more in captive breeding programs.
Wolf numbers were bolstered by releases of captive-born pups and sterilization of coyotes that competed for space. But those approaches were halted in 2015 amid pressure from conservative politicians and landowners who deemed wolves a nuisance.
Conservationists contend the government abandoned proven techniques. "The biggest problem now is not the mortality, it's the lack of releases," said McGee, the lawyer.