As the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service’s red wolf
recovery program here marked its 25th anniversary in 2012, it was
basking in nationwide accolades as a groundbreaking conservation
success. Just four years later, it is teetering on the edge of failure,
a turn of fate fanned by politics, mistaken identity and public ill
“There’s something going on and I can’t figure
out why the agency has been so willing to backtrack,” said Ron
Sutherland, a Durham-based scientist with the Wildlands Network. “The
red wolf program in the Fish and Wildlife Service has basically been
drawn and quartered.”
Sutherland said that there has been no response
from the agency to a petition submitted in July that was signed by
500,000 people in support of wild red wolves, which are protected under
the Endangered Species Act.
Critics say the program has been a failure from
the outset and that the Fish and Wildlife Service had released wolves
on private property without the written permission of landowners.
Red wolves had been declared extinct in the wild
when four pairs of captive wolves were transferred from Texas to the
Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge in 1987. Through intensive
management tactics that included sneaking captive-bred pups into dens
with wild-born pups, the population grew steadily. At its height in
2005-07, there were about 130 red wolves in the forested recovery area
spanning 1.7 million acres of public and private land in Hyde, Dare,
Tyrrell, Washington and Beaufort counties.
Today, there are just 45 wolves remaining in the
wilds of northeastern North Carolina, as well as 200 or so in
captivity, and Fish and Wildlife has sharply scaled back the recovery
September, the agency announced, after a two-year review of the
program, that by 2017 it planned to reduce wolf territory to an area in
Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge and the military bombing range
in Dare County. Wolves outside that range would be removed to captive
populations that reside in numerous zoos.
“It was disheartening to see how they want to
pull the animals back to almost where they started the program,” said
Kim Wheeler, executive director of the Tyrrell County-based Red Wolf
Coalition, a nonprofit education and advocacy group that started in
1997. “You can only have so many wolves in so much space – everybody
needs their own room and their own territory.”
Red wolf recovery would require changes to
“secure” the wild and captive populations, the agency said. In
addition, it acknowledged that there are questions about whether the
wolves’ genetics qualify for it to be classified under the Endangered
Shortly after the agency’s announcement, U.S.
District Judge Terrence Boyle issued a preliminary injunction that
forbade removal of wolves from private property, unless it can be shown
there is a threat to humans, pets or livestock. In issuing the
order, Boyle accused the wildlife service of failing to adequately
protect the wolves.
“What had been happening lately is that
individual landowners have required wolves to be removed from their
property, because they don’t like them,” said Jason Rylander, senior
attorney for Defenders of Wildlife, one of the plaintiffs. “They can’t
be removed just because they’re present on the property.”
An earlier lawsuit ruled on by the same judge led
to a ban in 2014 of nighttime coyote hunting in the recovery area, a
practice that conservation groups blamed for a spike in wolf gunshot
The end result of the recent injunction is that
while it is under effect, the wildlife service’s plan to remove wolves
in all but the Dare County and Alligator River area will not be
allowed, essentially forestalling its plan.
The program’s path from bold experiment, to
successful innovation, to despair for its future is perhaps more
dramatic, and compressed, than most accounts of wildlife-conservation
Twenty years after the first red wolves were
released onto Alligator River lands, more than 100 wolves were
inhabitants, and the program was credited as a model for other
“That was the prototype wolf-recovery program
that gave legs to the wolf-recovery programs in Yellowstone and the
northern Rockies, as well as for the Mexican wolf, Walter Medvid,
executive director of the Minneapolis-based International Wolf Center,
said in a 2007 article in The Virginian-Pilot.
Medvid said that top predators such as wolves are
good for ecological stability and help keep prey populations healthy
Smaller than gray wolves but bigger than coyotes,
red wolves weigh about 55 to 85 pounds and are brown with patches of
red behind their ears. Long ago, they ranged from southern New
England to Florida and as far west as central Missouri and Texas before
being gradually hunted to near-extinction. By the 1970s, fewer than 100
red wolves were believed to exist on the Gulf Coast.
An analysis of species characteristics was done
by the wildlife service before 14 wolves were selected to begin a
captive-breeding program. Four pairs of those wolves were chosen for
release in 1987 in Alligator River, an area with natural boundaries and
plenty of prey.
Sparsely developed, heavily wooded northeastern
North Carolina seemed as if it would be perfect habitat for red wolves,
a shy creature not known for aggression toward humans. But the red wolf
preys on deer and roams private as well as public land.
Conservationists may regard the wolf as an important part of the
ecosystem, but to a significant number of landowners and hunters, the
wolf is little more than an interloper and a competitor. And to the
wolf’s misfortune, it looks very similar to a coyote, which arrived in
the region not long after the wolf’s re-introduction. Shooting wolves
is illegal; hunting coyotes is permitted.
Wolves will mate with coyotes if their mate is
killed, exacerbating a threat to the species: hybridization. But the
wildlife service’s recovery team developed an effective tactic that
used a sterilized coyote to serve as a “placeholder” in keeping other
coyotes out of its territory. Before it was discontinued, the measure
was proving to curtail the problem with diluting the red wolf genes
with those of coyotes. The controversial issue of whether the red wolf
is a separate species is still being debated by the wildlife service.
Another successful method the recovery team
devised is putting similarly aged captive-bred pups in with other pups
in a wild den, after sprinkling them with a little urine from the wild
pups. To the team’s joy, the mothers accepted the pups as their
own, helping to ensure the genetic viability of the species.
But from the beginning, gunshot mortalities had
been a growing issue with red wolf management. By 2003, 28 wolves had
been shot. Between 2004 and 2011, another 52 wolves had been shot,
despite possible penalties of up to a year in prison and a fine of
$100,000. When coyote hunting was expanded in 2012 to nighttime hours,
shooting deaths of wolves increased again.
But when the judge later restricted coyote
hunting, the political winds seem to turn in a fury toward the wolves.
Pages filled with nasty comments about the wolves started cropping up
on internet hunting forums. Legislators started hearing demands from
constituents to do something about the wolves.
In January 2015, the North Carolina Wildlife
Resources Commission adopted a resolution asking the wildlife service
to end the red wolf project, and another resolution asking the wildlife
service to remove all “unauthorized releases” of wolves and their
offspring from private land.
U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., is among those who have called for eliminating the red wolf recovery program.
Tillis, speaking in September at a House
Committee on Natural Resources hearing on the program, said the program
had failed to meet population recovery goals for the red wolf while
negatively affecting North Carolina landowners and the populations of
several other native species. He said 514 private landowners and
farmers had sent individual requests to the Fish and Wildlife Service
to not allow red wolves on their land.
“Before we do anything more in North Carolina, I
think it makes the most sense to shut the program down to figure out
how to do it right and build some credibility with the landowners,”
Tillis said during the hearing. “There is a less than respectful
history of dialogue between folks in North Carolina and the Fish and
Wildlife Service. This is going to be an issue my office will be
focused on for as long as I’m a U.S. senator.”
Wheeler, of the Red Wolf Coalition, said the
issue was more political than she ever thought it would
be. “Certainly, our red wolves are getting caught in that
political mess,” she said.
article is provided by Coastal Review Online, an online news service
covering North Carolina's coast. For more news, features, and
information about the coast, go to www.coastalreview.org.)