There may not be more than 10 red wolves left in the wild, and they’re all in one place: North Carolina.
It’s a staggering statistic for a species that was once hailed as undergoing the most successful reintroduction program in the US, providing the blueprint for Yellowstone National Park’s much-lauded gray wolf recovery project.
“The [red wolf] “The program has almost completely collapsed since I’ve been working here,” says Heather Clarkson, who works with the environmental charity. Defenders of wildlife. “It took about 20 years for the show to have a solid place, that’s the really sad part. Because now it has crashed. Disappointment barely scratches the surface. “
In January, following legal action by conservation groups, including Defenders of Wildlife, the district court for the eastern district of North Carolina ruled that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), which had canceled the red wolf reintroduction program, should resume releasing wolves into the wild. This month, the USFWS presented a new plan for the judge and it has given the groups that initiated the lawsuit two weeks to file any objections.
Start of the rebuild scheme
The plan to increase the number of red wolves in the wild began in 1973, when the USFWS set out to capture as many of the remaining wolves as possible to establish a captive breeding program.
In 1980, the red wolf was declared extinct in the wild. Seven years later, the first reintroduction was made at the 60,000-hectare (152,000-acre) Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge in North Carolina. A breeding pair was released and the herd subsequently raised the captive-bred cubs.
At its peak, in 2011, there were as many as 130 red wolves roaming the marshes, swamps, and coastal grasslands. Their recovery was the first time in the US that a large carnivore had been declared extinct in the wild and then successfully reintroduced.
But when Clarkson started working on the project in 2016, they were already seeing “some pretty terrible numbers.” There were less than 60 left in the wild.
“I remember when I was a little kid in elementary school and I learned about the red wolf, and I learned that we are the only place in the whole world that has these wolves,” says Clarkson, who was born in North Carolina. “Fast forward 20-odd years and I’m applying for a job that is a last-ditch effort to save the species. It is surreal. And heartbreaking. “
Although there has been a debate as to whether they are a separate species, a subspecies, or a hybrid, most scientists now regard the red wolf as a distinct species. They are smaller than their gray counterparts, are closer in size to coyotes, and feed primarily on smaller mammals such as raccoons, rodents, and rabbits. They are the world’s most endangered species of wolves, although until the early 1900s they were common throughout the eastern and south central US, from New York state to Louisiana and as far west as parts of Texas. .
They have suffered habitat degradation due to increased urban development, which fragmented their breeding and hunting areas, and hybridization with coyotes. But the biggest threat today is conflict with landowners, which has led to them being hunted down and shot.
Conflict with landowners
Although the species is protected under the Endangered Species Act, it is not illegal to kill a wolf if the animal is attacking you, your livestock, or your pets. Under the law, red wolves can be killed when the USFWS authorizes a “capture” and after the agency’s efforts to capture the animal have been abandoned. Over the years, the USFWS has issued a series of lethal harvest permits to landowners.
“There have been a lot of tensions between landowners and the federal government,” says Clarkson. “The wolves became a very easy scapegoat. They represented the intrusion of the federal government. It really became a bigger problem. “
Tim Gestwicki is the executive director of the North Carolina Wildlife Federation, a conservation charity that promotes coexistence between landowners and wildlife. The NCWF launched Prey for the Pack, a program to support red wolves on private land, and has signed several contracts with landowners who want to help the species recover.
“The whole problem can be traced back to the ability of private owners to manage their property,” says Gestwicki. “And that means only one thing: coyote management. The ability to shoot coyotes is what landowners want, but they have been prohibited from doing so because it is difficult to distinguish them from wolves. “
Coyotes are “everywhere,” says Gestwicki, who believes there is a future for the red wolf “as long as the concerns of private owners are met.”
Although permission to kill a “problem wolf” was a factor in its decline, more critical was that in 2015 the USFWS declared that it would no longer release wolves into the wild or continue to sterilize coyotes to protect the red wolf genome. Following the decision, the population plummeted. In 2019 and 2020, for the first time in 31 years, no red wolf pups were born in the wild.
“Going six years without releasing more wolves,” says Clarkson, “means losing even two wolves in a year is devastating. The USFWS has stopped the most basic forms of management. “
Conservation groups eventually took the USFWS to court. “The agency’s ban on captive releases would effectively doom the red wolf to extinction in the wild,” says Sierra Weaver, an attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC). The SELC, along with Defenders of Wildlife and the Animal Welfare Institute, sued the federal agency last November, citing its new policies to stop spaying coyotes and ending the release of captive wolf pups in the wild. , which seemed to go against the conservation of the red wolf. – were illegal.
In its Jan. 22 ruling, the district court said the USFWS must resume the release of wolves in the wild as well as the coyote spay program and present a plan to reinstate the program.
The court determined that it was “likely” that the USFWS had violated the Endangered Species Act and prohibited the agency from issuing further permits to kill wolves. The court added that the failure to release more wolves “will almost certainly result in the extinction of the red wolf.”
The USFWS has since released its plan, saying it is resuming the release of red wolves into the wild. Conservation groups will now consider the details of the plan before giving their response.
The decision is good news for the North Carolina Zoo. The number of captive red wolves is increasing, with more cubs being born each spring. Until 2015, the USFWS had released captive-born wolf cubs, pairing them with wild adoptive families, and the technique had proven successful.
“I was disappointed that the USFWS stopped the puppy rearing program, but I understand the reasoning behind the decision. At that point there was a review of the entire recovery program, ”says Chris Lasher, animal management supervisor at the zoo.
The North Carolina Zoo obtained its first red wolf in 1995. It was the first facility to raise cubs born under human care in a wild den, and has raised 40 cubs, two of which were sent to the now-closed recovery facility in Great Smoky Mountains National park. Of the 247 captive red wolves in the US, the North Carolina Zoo has 25, making it the second largest red wolf breeding facility in the world.
“By adding pups around two weeks old to a wild litter, we can increase the genetic health of the wild population in a way that has the least amount of mortality possible,” says Lasher. “We have had 100% acceptance of the puppies adopted by the wild wolf mother.”
Clarkson is hopeful that the red wolf can be saved and even thrive. “The Endangered Species Act is a legal obligation,” he says. “That’s what USFWS is for. There are dedicated people at USFWS, so I’m hopeful. “
USFWS declined to comment.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism