The Long and Winding Road

Once on the rebound, red wolves of the Southeast face an uncertain future

By Heidi Ridgley, Editor of Defenders.

Red Wolf, © Seth BynumI don’t expect to see red wolf tracks five minutes after we turn off the gravel road. But here they are in the mud, the impression of each toepad punctuated by the wolf’s distinctive clawtips. One perfectly formed print, pressed deep in the mud following days of rain, is hardening in the summer sun like a plaster mold.

Honored to stand on turf where the world’s most endangered canid recently passed, I am hoping it is a sign that we will see an actual wolf today or at least hear one howl. 

Kim Wheeler, executive director of the Red Wolf Coalition—a Defenders partner—follows the trail until it disappears into the brush. “I’m looking for smaller paw prints,” she tells me. An adult red wolf from the Milltail pack—the only pack that resides completely within Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge in northeastern North Carolina—has been spotted recently in a nearby cornfield. Rumor has it, this pack had seven pups in spring. 

Lanky and lean, red wolves—the far less famous cousin of the larger gray wolf in the Northern Rockies—once ranged all the way from Texas, east to Georgia and up to Pennsylvania. But by the 1970s, hunting, habitat loss and a hatred that led to irrational persecution had reduced the species to a remnant population in swampy, remote parts of coastal Texas and Louisiana. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) biologists took the very last 17 individuals on the planet into captivity and in a never-before-tried, last-ditch effort to prevent extinction of the species, began a captive-breeding program. In 1987, they reintroduced red wolf pairs onto the refuge. Here, they successfully denned and raised pups. 

Other releases followed, with the goal of letting the red wolf population expand in a five-county recovery area on the Albemarle Peninsula. These releases resulted in high mortality—how do you teach an animal raised in captivity to live in the wild?—but eventually the species got somewhat of a paw-hold. Although the federal recovery goal to reintroduce red wolves to other suitable sites has yet to be achieved, in North Carolina—after three decades of consistent effort—the red wolf reintroduction was deemed an Endangered Species Act (ESA) success story and became a model for gray wolf recovery in the Northern Rockies and Southwest.

Then in recent years, FWS pulled back on red wolf recovery, appearing to cave to pressure led by a few vocal and persistent landowners—one owns a game farm and another lives on the Outer Banks where wolves don’t roam. 

Rather than working with landowners to provide the nonlethal tools needed to help them coexist with red wolves, FWS began authorizing private landowners to kill red wolves for no cause—including a nursing female (thus dooming her pups). Allowing property owners to kill wolves simply for straying across private property is a significant departure from the protocol of the past and a puzzling move from the agency charged with progressing the species’ recovery. 

FWS also began capturing wolves at the request of landowners who just didn’t want wolves around, holding them for weeks or months before releasing them into unfamiliar territory, separated from their mates and pack. “These wolves usually perish,” says Heather Clarkson, Defenders’ Southeast outreach representative. “It is a sad irony that the red wolf recovery program—which was incredibly successful and used as a model for many other endangered species recovery efforts—has come so far only to be mismanaged into near-nothingness because of poor decision-making by a federal agency.” 

FWS also suspended community education efforts, eliminated the vital red wolf recovery coordinator position, stopped its work to prevent hybridization with coyotes (a western canid that only made its East Coast debut in the last few decades after wolves were virtually eradicated from the ecosystem), and failed to use its authority under the ESA to end coyote hunting practices that resulted in wolf deaths. Since 2013, illegal shootings began to escalate but FWS did little to investigate and nothing to prosecute. 

Between 1987 and 2010, almost 52 percent of red wolf deaths were directly related to human activities—lawful or not. Accidental shootings—“I thought it was a coyote”—are considered incidental.

The result: Red wolf numbers that were consistently above 100 since 2000—and still considered too low—plummeted from 150 individuals to 45 in four years. 

“This is an alarming decrease, and it demands a solution not a punt,” says Ben Prater, Defenders’ Southeast program director. “These wolves require active management given that human actions have decimated their gene pool, disrupted the majority of their habitat and once purposely shunted them to near-oblivion. That FWS wants to duck out of its responsibility now—while pretending they are doing what is in the species best interest—is shameful.”

Prater is referring to FWS’s recent proposal—announced in September—to trap and remove almost all of North Carolina’s wild red wolves and put them into captivity to double the breeding population to 400. This means abandoning all protective efforts in the wild except on the refuge and the adjacent Air Force bombing range—where the one pack I am hoping to see or hear today lives. At most, the refuge might have enough territory for one more pack, provided the total number doesn’t exceed 15 wolves—the average number of wolves that have died in each of the past three years.

“This would reduce the area wolves can roam from five counties to less than one and require the capture of almost all of the 45 wolves that remain,” says Prater. “This could be the death-knell for red wolves in the wild. Restricting wolves to one small piece of land goes against their very biology.”

Rep. Raul Grijalva, ranking member of the U.S. House of Representatives Natural Resources Committee, agrees. “This sets a terrible precedent for management of similar species, including the Mexican gray wolf in my home state of Arizona,” he said, in a statement following FWS’s announcement. “The service needs to do its job and follow the science of species recovery, not the loud voices of a few anti-government fearmongers.” 

In fact statewide and across party lines, 73 percent of North Carolina voters polled by Tulchin Research in August said that they support recovery of red wolves native to their state, and 81 percent agree that FWS “should make every effort to help the endangered red wolf population recover and prevent its extinction.” 

When announcing the trap-and-remove proposal—which will go through a public comment period this year—FWS’s Southeast Region Director Cindy Dohner justified it by saying the captive population of 200 wolves is in dire straits and needs to be doubled or they could go extinct. She also said that within the next year, the agency will identify potential new sites throughout the Southeast for future wolf reintroductions. 

Vague promises of reintroduction efforts somewhere else on some uncertain timeline don’t sit well with Prater. “Merely promising to take further action is not enough, especially when capturing and removing wolves from the wild is part of the decision,” says Prater. “The 1987 reintroduction in North Carolina was already nothing short of a biological, political and sociological miracle, making this a far-flung idea given how difficult and complex it would be for FWS to negotiate with a state for new territory.”

Biologists also question the science behind needing to bolster the captive population. FWS said it based its decision to return the majority of red wolves to captivity for breeding because the species will “likely be lost within the next decade.” But the very scientists who performed the population viability modeling for FWS prior to its decision—and who lead the captive-breeding programs at various sites around the county—said they found that the captive species is “under no risk of extinction.” In a clarifying letter to FWS in October, they stated that the captive population is “not at risk of ‘being lost’ within the next decade or within the 125-year model timeline.”

“Clearly, FWS has plenty of breeding pairs in captivity to accomplish that goal without needing to bring in the small number of wolves that currently live in the wild,” says Prater.

Just more than two weeks after FWS’s announcement, a federal judge in North Carolina temporarily halted wolf removal while a lawsuit is pending. Defenders and its partners sued in 2015 to prevent FWS from removing wolves from the wild. The case hinges on arguments that FWS is undermining the conservation of an endangered species by issuing lethal “take” permits and removing nonproblem wolves.

Meanwhile, back on the refuge, batting away biting bugs and finding no more paw prints, Wheeler moves farther down the road and pulls out binoculars and a scope. “There’s 155,000 acres here and the wolves use the whole thing,” she says. “It’s like finding a needle in a haystack.” 

After scanning the field and seeing no movement she says, “I’m going to howl.” Having led wolf-howling public-outreach tours here back when FWS wanted to partner with the coalition, her howl is loud, clear, authentic. It’s a windy June morning but if they hear her, there’s a good chance one will howl back. “Even in daylight, if mom hears a howl, she’ll want to tell us she’s here.” 

The hot summer air delivers only silence. 

That’s not to say this refuge is lifeless. We met at the refuge entrance less than an hour ago and already we’ve seen wolf tracks, black bear scat, three black bears, quail and a turtle. As we move along, we encounter a river otter, a rattlesnake and a mama bear with her three cubs climbing backwards down a tree. The Albemarle peninsula is home to one of the densest populations of black bears east of the Mississippi. 

But the red wolves of the Southeast are shy and secretive. They prefer to avoid people and livestock, stealthily traveling alone or in small family packs—lifelong bonded partners and their offspring. 

In the end, Wheeler and I never do see a red wolf. Not wanting to disappoint, she takes me near FWS’s captive-breeding facility on the refuge, where she cups her mouth and throws back her head to howl again. At first all we hear are bullfrogs. Then after her fifth attempt and a 30-second delay, a long, haunting, plaintive howl rises up through the forested swamp. It gets louder as others join the chorus. Wheeler guesses five. 

“If it hadn’t been for some amazing people decades ago, this sound would’ve been lost forever,” Wheeler says softly after she’s sure the chorus has stopped. “Now we are right back to where we started. After all that work and all the wolves have done to hang on, there’s a chance we will still lose this sound in the wild.”

As I leave the refuge later that day, I can’t help but wonder: If FWS chooses to abandon red wolves because it’s just “too difficult,” which species will be next? 

Photo credit: © Seth Bynum/Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium (Captive)

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