The red wolf, an endangered species with fewer than 100 individuals left in the wild and approximately 200 in captive breeding facilities around the country, is a striking, smart-looking canid with pointy ears tinged an autumn crimson. Larger than coyotes and smaller than gray wolves, red wolves have impossibly slender legs and eyes that can be deep and sorrowful. Seeing one up close — a rarity that probably requires a visit to a breeding facility in the winter months — is a humbling experience. The animals stay to themselves, a connected pack with no desire to add any human siblings, and only occasionally perk up their ears — perhaps a sign that they hear the trespasser, sense the presence, and prefer life without instigation.
Photo by by Jim Liestman
By the 1960s, the red wolf population had been decimated by intensive predator control programs and habitat loss. Today’s only wild population can be found in Washington, Beaufort, Tyrrell, Hyde and Dare counties in North Carolina, not too far from the world-famous beaches of the Outer Banks. The first rewilding of red wolves began in 1987 in the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge in eastern North Carolina, thanks to the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS). These releases have helped a population that numbered as few as 17 back then grow to healthier, though still small, numbers.
However, because of several issues in North Carolina, including hybridization with coyotes and concern from local landowners, the future of the red wolf in the Southeast remains uncertain. Recently, the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission adopted resolutions calling for the end of the red wolf reintroduction project in the state and for the USFWS to capture and remove individual animals and subsequent offspring that were released on private land.
If the resolutions are fully realized, red wolves could become biologically extinct in the wild again.
The USFWS is expected to issue its decision on the matter in March, and all possibilities remain on the table. “We still haven’t made our decision at this point on what to do with the nonessential, experimental population there in North Carolina,” said Tom MacKenzie, spokesperson for the Southeast Region of the USFWS.
MacKenzie said there are two main options: to modify the program in some way or completely remove the wolves from North Carolina. “And kind of anything in the middle might be a consideration as well,” he added.
The recovery program was one of the first of its kind after the Endangered Species Act became federal law in 1973. Although it has been successful at rebuilding the population, there have been trials and tribulations. Perhaps the largest challenge to the red wolves is their canid cousins, the coyotes. MacKenzie said if the timing is right, red wolves and coyotes can mate. This creates genetic problems, especially for a population that is trying to rebound from so few survivors in the first place.
To combat the hybridization, the Fish and Wildlife Service have tried a placeholder strategy that calls for sterilizing coyotes, and then returning them to their territories until they can be replaced with wolves. “[T]here’s research being done on that to show if it’s a viable option for this population or potential future populations,” MacKenzie said.
Another problem involves humans. In the first two months of 2015, two red wolves have died from “non-management-related actions,” which means they were killed by private traps. Nine red wolves died from 2012 to 2014 from vehicle hits, and 21 perished from suspected or confirmed gunshots. “[T]hose gunshot deaths… really did have an impact on the red wolf population, particularly because those were breeding males and breeding females that were being shot,” MacKenzie said. “And when those are broken up, those bonds, then other coyotes would move in, and that would mean that breeding pair was basically done. And that affected population, procreation, and the numbers.”
The shooting of red wolves is likely related to the fact they look similar to coyotes, especially at night when coyote hunting often takes place. In 2014, the state made the decision to halt coyote hunting in the five red wolf counties, but this caused much ire among local communities in North Carolina. Earlier this year, the state Wildlife Resources Commission approved temporary rules for conditional daytime coyote hunting with an authorized permit.
Besides the hybridization and disagreements with the local community, a contentious point has been the USFWS’ decision to release red wolves on private land. The North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission has characterized these private-land releases as “unauthorized.”
“[Releases on private land] did occur, and that was stopped here about last year,” MacKenzie said. “And by unauthorized, that’s probably a bit strong language because, according to the red wolf folks, they would only release wolves on land where the folks said it was okay to do so…. We didn’t make like a public announcement that we were doing this, so that’s why they would say it’s unauthorized.”
MacKenzie said the Service will still protect the red wolf, regardless of the decision in March. He also noted that, although there are sufficient numbers to keep the species alive in captivity, the long-term objective is to create three self-sustaining populations around the Southeast region in the red wolves’ former range. So far, there is only one.
Photo by by OnceAndFutureLaura/Flickr
A recent report released by the Wildlife Management Institute (WMI), a nonprofit focused on wildlife education, has been a driving factor in determining the fate of North Carolina’s red wolves. The report, completed in November 2014, contained several suggestions for managers.
“[T]he Fish and Wildlife Service, their scientists know what they’re doing,” said Steve Williams, president of WMI. “They have a good understanding, I think, of the biology of the red wolves. Where we thought [the program] was lacking a bit was the interaction with the public, and that’s really a very important aspect of a recovery program, especially with a predator. People either love them, or they don’t love them.” In this case, the report found that many people in the region do not love red wolves, and were “not strongly in favor” of the program.
“There’s a saying in wildlife management: We all get into it because we love wildlife, and we end up spending 95 percent of our time with people issues and about 5 percent with wildlife issues,” Williams added.
During the review process, Williams learned that the local communities in eastern North Carolina haven’t always had to deal with predators. In the 1980s, he said, coyotes were not an issue, and red wolves hadn’t been reintroduced yet. Today, both canids are present, and people are concerned about public safety, livestock, and impact on other wildlife like deer.
“The injunction to stop coyote hunting in those five counties, I think… that accelerated some of the people that were against the program,” Williams said. “Our sense of perception was some of the people that lived in that area, particularly the property owners, felt as though they had no way of protecting their livestock, their property, in some cases their kids, should coyotes or red wolves or the hybrids show up.… It’s sort of the American spirit that [you] should be able to do things to protect your property and your livelihood, and with the injunction, the court said, ‘No, you can’t hunt coyotes. You can’t shoot red wolves.’”
He added, “In this case, perception was reality for a lot of folks down there.”
Eastern North Carolina, Williams said, is also unique because of the amount of federal land. With a national seashore, plus the refuge, a lot of land is seemingly off-limits to locals. Some activities that their grandparents or great-grandparents may have enjoyed — running vehicles on the beach in certain areas, for example — are now restricted, and in peoples’ minds, the red wolves have become connected to these regulations.
“It had nothing to do with red wolves,” Williams said. “It’s the government intervention in private landowners’ lives, and all that stuff added up and kind of came to a boil. Then you throw in the red wolves and the coyotes and not being able to hunt them, all that stuff, it riled people, no question about it.”
The perception-reality debate is one that has dogged wolf recovery for a long time. From stories of Little Red Riding Hood to The Grey, a Liam Neeson movie where wolves snarl in the darkness beyond the campfire’s glow, this iconic American animal is often portrayed as a vicious, blood-hungry canid. Wolf conservationists argue that wolves are misunderstood.
“It goes back to colonial times,” Williams said. “There were red wolves from Texas to Pennsylvania, east of the Mississippi, and there’s a reason that there aren’t anymore because people were concerned, scared.… They were killed, and trapped, and poisoned, and gone, which is unfortunate. But that’s part of the history of our country.”
According to the report, the USFWS also broke some of the rules it had set up at the program’s inception. One of them: If wolves moved beyond the original release region, the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge, and landowners spotted the endangered animals, the Service was supposed to return the animals to the refuge. This hasn’t always happened, and today nearly 60 percent of the red wolves occupy private land. Additionally, under the Endangered Species Act, the wolves were not supposed to be released onto private property, regardless of the property owners’ consent. However, over time, such releases did take place.
The Red Wolf Coalition, based in Columbia, NC, was created by a red wolf biologist who saw the need for a nongovernmental organization to conduct educational outreach and advocacy efforts in local communities. The organization even has a resident pair of red wolf ambassadors, captive born and bred, that are used for educational programs.
Kim Wheeler, who has been with the organization for 10 years and now serves as the coalition’s executive director, said she’s disappointed over the recent push by the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission to end the recovery program. As far as the 2014 WMI report, Wheeler said she doesn’t believe anything surprised the USFWS.
“There isn’t a reintroduction program probably ever undertaken on this earth that didn’t have challenges as you go along,” she said. “Shock came… when the [North Carolina] Wildlife Resources Commission issued these resolutions. We were certainly not aware that they had made that decision.”
Because the USFWS has ultimate say, Wheeler’s efforts are focused at the federal level. She characterized the WMI report as leaving a “to-do list” that she hopes will be followed. “We know we have some issues, but how do we move this program forward?” she asked. “I hope they’re looking at keeping the animal on the landscape and either modifying or coming up with a totally new reintroduction plan for this animal. I hope [they] just do not decide that it’s too hard, it’s too difficult to do, and therefore remove the animals from the wild, which could make them extinct, because that sets a horrible precedent for endangered species across our country.”
Wheeler’s passion for the animal is obvious, and yet she has only seen two red wolves in the wild in the past 10 years. The elusive animal is tough to view, and a person could go a lifetime without seeing one. Wheeler said it’s more likely that farmers, when tending to their agricultural fields, see the wolves. In the hot North Carolina summer, when temperatures can be in the 90s, wolves sometimes like the cooler, chewed-up grounds of a farm and find shade beneath the leaves of crops.
Given how difficult they are to spot, Wheeler relies on her two ambassador animals to tell the story of this species and build public support for the recovery effort. “It’s such a story of resilience,” she said. “When these animals were first released, there was no blueprint by which they went by to do this.… It’s been the model for a number of other programs, and that’s important.”
Although there are fewer than 100 red wolves in the wild, there are an additional 200 in captive breeding centers. Maggie Howell, executive director of the Wolf Conservation Center in South Salem, NY, which breeds captive wolves, said that wolf pups are genetically tested to see if they could be good matches for a pup-fostering program in the wild. If the indicators match up, “we can actually remove some of the pups that were born here and take them down to North Carolina and insert them into the den of those wild wolves that also had pups,” Howell said.
Although the New York facility has not had pups relocated to North Carolina yet, their fingers and paws are crossed. One of the wolves born in New York in 2010 has landed on St. Vincent’s Island on the coast of Florida, a secluded spot for red wolf breeding.
“What a great way to have an animal born in captivity become a part of that wild population and then help enhance the health of that wild population genetically,” Howell said of the breeding efforts. “And they’re never even going to know that they were born in captivity, and it’s amazing because the parents, the wild parents, tend to just accept them and raise them as if they were their own.”
The New York center has seven red wolves, including a family of five and a separate breeding pair. Sometimes wolves can be shuffled around the nation in an elaborate “matchmaking” exercise to promote genetic diversity. “Genetics is really going to be governing all of our management decisions from captivity because they came from a family population of just 14,” Howell said. “So via genetics we’ll decide who gets to mate with whom, or gets that opportunity, and often because of this we’re going to be transferring wolves across country between the different facilities.”
Howell said if the red wolf program ends in North Carolina the decision would lead to a “devastating precedent” for other endangered animals. “It’s really undermining the Endangered Species Act,” she said. “It’s undermining this effort, which is a big milestone in species recovery.”
On a recent trip to the Wolf Conservation Center to see the seven red wolves in their habitat, mounds of crusted snow dotted the landscape. Approaching the fenced enclosure of the red wolves, it wasn’t immediately apparent where the animals were hiding. The habitat looked empty, closed for the season perhaps. But slowly, in an almost nervous and private sort of way, the red wolves emerged on the far reaches of the fenced environment. They were characteristically red around the edges of their fur, their legs as skinny as shovel handles, their ears like steepled hands in prayer. Against the icy glimmer of the winter’s packed snow, these specimens of Canis rufus remained reserved and separated from the humans. Viewing the seven animals was a for-whom-the-bell-tolls kind of moment. These red wolves, and their brothers and sisters around the country, represent the final images of a canid that the Cherokee called “Wa’ya,” an animal that once howled at the moon in Tennessee, ran in the wilderness of Louisiana and enjoyed the green landscapes from New England to Texas.
That historic range is but a memory. Today’s red wolves — a third living in the wilderness of North Carolina, two-thirds in captivity — are descendants of little more than a dozen survivors, and their human advocates worry about their future.
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