By JONATHAN DREW | Associated Press

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — In the 27 years since federal officials reintroduced the red wolf in the wild, a restoration program has mustered about 100 of the carnivores in a handful of North Carolina counties. A decision looms in early 2015 on whether to continue efforts to maintain the only wild population of the species.

How the species' existence will play out, in the wild or in a cage, has been debated in courtrooms, at high levels of the federal government and in 48,000 public comments to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The importance of the decision is reflected in the deliberate pace the agency is taking.

Tom MacKenzie, a spokesman for the wildlife service, said that the decision on the program's fate is expected in the first three months of the year but that he couldn't be more specific.

“They're trying to get it done early as possible, but in a deliberative process that allows for everyone's opinions to be brought in,” he said.

Once common in the Southeast, the red wolf had been considered extinct in the wild as of 1980 because of factors including hunting and loss of habitat. In 1987, wildlife officials released red wolves bred in captivity back into the wild in North Carolina. About 100 of them now roam five eastern North Carolina counties, and about 200 are in captive breeding programs.

As part of their evaluation, federal officials commissioned an independent review in late 2014 that found flaws in how the program is run, ranging from inadequate understanding of population trends to poor coordination with local managers. The report also suggested that red wolves be reintroduced in additional areas.

The federal agency has said all options are on the table. When a program to restore the wolves to the Smoky Mountains in the western part of the state ended in 1998, the agency tried to capture all of the animals and bring them back to captivity, Leopoldo Miranda, an assistant regional director for the Fish and Wildlife Service, has said.

MacKenzie said Miranda and other decision-makers were unavailable for an interview.

In November, conservation groups won a court battle to impose stricter hunting rules for coyotes in five eastern North Carolina counties, including a ban on nighttime hunting, that are meant to protect the wolves, which look similar. The groups cited gunshots as a leading cause of death for the wolves, even though it's illegal to kill them in most circumstances.

The settlement agreement does allow for daytime hunting on private land by permit. A lawyer for the Animal Welfare Institute, Tara Zuardo, said she hopes that allowing daytime hunting will placate landowners and reduce political pressure that wildlife officials may be feeling. All coyote hunting had been banned for several months before the settlement was struck.

Zuardo said she's hopeful that federal wildlife officials will decide to continue or modify the red wolf program, and perhaps release them in additional sites, rather than pull the plug.

“In my opinion, if they were to terminate the program it would be a political and financial decision,” said Zuardo, whose group was one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit challenging the coyote hunting rules. “And certainly if Fish and Wildlife chose to do that, they will be challenged. It's not a good idea.”