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Scientists say study was misinterpreted in red wolf decision

RALEIGH, N.C. — Four scientists cited in a decision to scale back the only wild population of red wolves say the government misinterpreted their work, according to a letter released Tuesday.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced in September it intends to sharply reduce the wolves' territory in eastern North Carolina and remove some wolves from the wild to bolster a separate captive breeding population.

The wildlife service's Southeast regional director, Cynthia Dohner, said at the time that recent data showed the captive population wasn't secure and swift action was needed to ensure the future of all red wolves — wild or captive. A memo signed by Dohner cites a government-commissioned Population Viability Analysis as its source on the captive population's precarious position.

But four of the report's five authors wrote in a letter this month that their findings were misconstrued, saying the captive population isn't in danger. The fifth author is employed at the wildlife service.

The four scientists wrote to Dohner on Oct. 11 that the "decision on the future of the Red Wolf Recovery Program included many alarming misinterpretations of the PVA as justification."

The letter, released by the Defenders of Wildlife, said the "most conspicuous misinterpretation" was to suggest that the current captive population isn't secure. The scientists say that group of wolves, in zoos and other facilities, isn't at risk of being lost in the next century.

Last month, Dohner told reporters that securing the captive population was a key reason for revamping the red wolf program.

"In fact if we continue with the status quo we will likely lose the captive population," she said.

On Tuesday, wildlife service spokesman Jeffrey Fleming said the agency was grateful for the feedback from the scientists.

"There have been a number of questions related to population viability, genetics, etc.," he said by phone. "Frankly that whole suite of questions, I'm not sure we're ever going to get to 100 per cent agreement or a high level of consensus."

Once common around the Southeast, the red wolf had been considered extinct in the wild as of 1980. Releases of captive-bred wolves started in 1987.

The only wild population, in North Carolina, grew to about 130 wolves in 2006 before declining to about 45 wolves now.

The wildlife service proposed in September to double the size of the captive population and, in the future, scout for new areas to release wild wolves.

But starting in 2017, the plan also proposes limiting wild red wolves to a refuge and adjacent land in eastern North Carolina's Dare County, rather than the wolves' current five-county area. Red wolves outside that area would be taken to the captive breeding program, officials said. The new plan is contingent on modifying program rules after a public comment period.

Meanwhile, a federal judge issued a preliminary ruling late last month restricting the government's ability to remove the animals from private property unless they can show that the wolves are threatening humans, pets or livestock. It's generally illegal to kill the wolves.

The new government plan has been decried by conservationists such as the Defenders of Wildlife, who say the new letter shows the government's plan isn't supported by science.

"The agency's plan is like driving the wrong way for fifty miles because you misheard the directions," the group's president Jamie Rappaport Clark said in a news release.