December 12, 2012
Red wolf program ends its 25th year and faces challenges
By CATHERINE KOZAK
Coastal Review Online
Twenty-five years after the first captive-bred red wolves were released into the swamps and pine forest of Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge,
the success of the Red Wolf Recovery Program is intertwined in an
uneasy relationship with the wolf's close cousin, the coyote.
wolves were declared extinct in 1980, but now 100 to 120 of them roam
freely, and exclusively, in a five-county range in northeastern North
So far, biologists with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife
Service’s program have effectively managed to keep prolific coyotes
from interbreeding with red wolves, a behavior that had become a major
threat to the wolves’ recovery.
The management technique
combines human interference and natural territorial response. A coyote
would be captured, sterilized and returned to the same place in the
wild. It would then instinctively hold the territory, blocking
interloping -- and fertile -- coyotes from entering. Eventually, a
larger red wolf will move in and take over.
“We’ve had great
success with that,” said David Rabon, coordinator of the Red Wolf
Recovery Program. “In all cases, wolves will kill or displace the
coyote. There have been no cases where the coyotes will kill or
displace the wolf.”
But unnatural causes of mortality -- gunshots, vehicle strikes -- are more difficult to solve.
recent state decision to permit night-time coyote hunting has coincided
with the shooting deaths between September and November of four
radio-collared red wolves, renewing issues with co-existing coyote and
In August 2012, the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission implemented
a temporary rule that allows hunters to use a light when shooting
coyotes on private lands at night. The problem is that the animals,
with their big ears and similar body shape, look a lot like red wolves,
which are protected under the federal Endangered Species Act. After a
court challenge by conservation groups, a judge issued a temporary
injunction in late November on the practice within the red wolf
recovery area -- Dare, Tyrrell, Hyde, Washington and Beaufort counties.
The investigation into the shootings is continuing.
Cobb, chief of the commission’s Division of Wildlife Management, said
that coyotes can be found in every one of the state’s 100 counties and
have been known to stray into a city or two. Although they’re rarely
aggressive to humans, they frequently prey on livestock and even pets.
“The commission made the decision that they need to move
forward to provide landowners with options to manage their properties,”
Cobb said that a study is underway to determine the
coyote population in the state, but it appears to be growing. Hunters
can shoot as many coyotes as they want every day of the year, as long
as it’s on private land and they have permission of the landowner. On
Sunday, only archery equipment can be used.
Last year, about
36,000 coyotes were killed in the state by 32,388 registered hunters,
according to a mail survey of hunters, Cobb said. Responding to a new
question in the 2011 survey, 12 percent of the hunters said they shot
the coyote incidentally while hunting other animals.
is responsible for determining whether it is a red wolf or a coyote
before deciding to shoot, Cobb said. There are stiff penalties for
shooting an endangered species.
To a large extent, hunting led
to the decimation of the red wolves in the 1960s, when predator
controls coupled with habitat loss essentially wiped out the species in
the southeastern U.S. Biologists found a small population
surviving along the Gulf Coast, and eventually 14 captured wolves
became a fruitful breeding colony.
Red wolf pups were bred
successfully in captivity for 10 years, and it was decided to begin an
experimental restoration program in the Alligator River refuge. Four
adult pairs were released in September 1987; by 1992, there were at
least 30 wolves in the wild. TheiR range has since expanded to 1.7
Today, according to the most recent 2012 program report,
there are 71 known wolves -- many with tracking collars -- in the
recovery area, including 15 wolf packs and eight mixed packs of wolves
and coyotes. There were also 45 sterile coyotes being monitored in the
Nine confirmed red wolf litters -- a total of 40
pups -- were born in 2012, and two captive-born pups were placed with a
foster mother in the refuge.
Also, about 200 captive wolves are part of the breeding program at other U.S. locations.
one of the program’s most encouraging accomplishments, three
captive-born wolf pups fostered in the wild, now mature, had their own
pups in the wild this year.
“If you think about what is the
ultimate success,” Rabon said. “One is they survive the fostering ---
the percentage is 90 percent, which is incredibly high. But the true
success is not only surviving, but becoming a reproducing adult.”
the recovery program has eight full-time staff and enough money to keep
it moving forward, Rabon said. A new facility in Columbia run by the
Red Wolf Coalition, a nonprofit that works closely with the recovery
program, is focused on education and public outreach and has a couple
of captive-born wolves onsite that can be viewed by appointment. The
other facility in the refuge mostly houses captive wolves for
management purposes and is not open to the public.
River’s red wolf recovery program has been lauded as a model for other
wolf recovery programs in the country. But Rabon concedes that the
population has been stagnant for a number of years -- the goal has been
to have about 220 wolves in the wild -- and the program is being
The biggest challenge, he said, is
addressing losses in the population that create holes, whether it’s a
coyote or a wolf. Whatever animal moves back in, especially if it’s a
fertile coyote, can threaten the management success in preventing
hybridization, among other challenges.
“It’s the loss
that creates that hole that has the potential to create a domino
effect,” he said. “It creates a disruption. It never allows things to
reach an equilibrium.”
It’s not that mortalities are not
expected in management, Rabon said, it’s the convergence of unnatural
and natural factors all at one time that can compound the destabilizing
In evaluating what is contributing to the management
issues and examining ways to mitigate or abate the problems, he said,
the conclusion may be that change is here to stay.
“If it is a new normal,” Rabon said, “then we’re trying to develop new ideas for that.”
the program is investigating expansion to an additional recovery site
in the southeastern U.S, one with a fair amount of open wilderness, a
suitable food supply and a willing and tolerant human population.
think for the most part, people have seen 25 years of a restoration
program,” Rabon said. “The wolves have not taken livestock or
threatened their homes or property. The majority of people don’t see
them as a threat they once may have seen them as.”