Camera trap footage shows rare and highly controversial red wolf in the wild | In danger

The status of the red wolf – this reddish-brown canine of the Southeastern America whose size and habits fall halfway between a coyote and a gray wolf – has been in constant flux for decades, and today it is in air on a number of account. The United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) is reconsidering its strategy for retrieving the animal, among the world’s rarest wild dogs, and meanwhile taxonomists continue to debate its position on the Canis family tree.

In light of all this political and scientific obscurity, it’s a pleasure to watch red wolves do their thing in the wild. The camera traps maintained by the Wildlands Network conservation group have collected stunning videos in the heart of the precarious Wolf Stronghold on the Albemarle-Pamlico Peninsula in northeastern North Carolina.


Images courtesy of the Wildlands Network.

Ron Sutherland of the Wildlands Network told us that the four clips here were taken from the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge, part of 1.7 million acres, five counties red wolf recovery area which also encompasses Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Reserve and other federally managed operations, state owned land, a government bombing zone and private land.

Sutherland said the first video showed young wolves or perhaps wolf-coyote hybrids, while the other three clips are most likely from the long-standing Milltail Pack.

The red wolf (Wa’ya at the Cherokee) once trotted over much of the American Southeast; where and how its range boundaries bordered that of the gray wolf is one of the many gray areas of canid natural history in pre-Columbian North America. Weighing around 23 to 36 kilograms (50 to 80 pounds), red wolves were historically not only the gray brown color that gives them their common name, but also often black; early naturalists, for example, recognized a “Florida black wolf”.

A red wolf in the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge in North Carolina (US Fish & Wildlife Service)

Immerse yourself in the taxonomy of the red wolf – and the genus Canis in North America, for that matter – at your own risk. This is a fascinating but thorny subject that is far from settled, and concerns roughly about five dogs: the Eurasian gray wolf (which may have colonized North America in several waves) and the red wolf. derived from the New World, Algonquin (aka Eastern or Great Lakes), wolf, coyote, and the so-called “eastern coyote” (often referred to as “coywolf”, although mammalogist Roland Kays has a problem with that).

The species status of the gray wolf and coyote is firmly established; where the others fall into the Canis the lineage is less established, to say the least. A 2012 review concluded that the red wolf, the Algonquin wolf and the coyote are likely parents with a common ancestor; a Genetic analysis 2016, in turn, the proposed red and Algonquin wolves derive from varying degrees of fairly recent gray wolf / coyote hybridization. Still another last year’s assessment, which scanned ancient canine remains from Southeastern America, suggested that the red wolf might (a) have evolved from a prehistoric coyote-wolf interbreeding, or (b) share a precursor with the coyote.

Taxonomic surveys like this could have an impact on how the US government classifies and treats the red wolf as a conservation priority. (The USFWS continues to regard it as its own species.) But as many researchers who have recently studied the genetics of red and Algonquin wolves have pointed out, whether these wolves are hybrids, subspecies, or separate species. does not detract from their “ecological authenticity” as apex carnivores in eastern North America. (The eastern coyote also appears to play an important ecological role in its newly colonized range.)

As noted by the authors of the 2016 study suggesting either ancient hybridization or a unique lineage for the red wolf, “If red wolves have an ancient hybrid origin, that would not prevent the species from protecting itself and , furthermore, it underscores the dynamic evolutionary nature of canids. “

“Whether these wolves are hybrids, subspecies, or distinct species does not detract from their ‘ecological authenticity’ as apex carnivores in eastern North America.”

The genetic fingerprint of the red wolf lineage is complicated due to the very small pool of founders. By the early 1800s, the agile deer, raccoon, and rabbit-hunting wolves of the forests and swamps of the southeast were already disappearing. Around the mid-20se century, they were mostly limited to the Gulf Coast of southeastern Texas and southwestern Louisiana (earlier strongholds apparently included South Florida’s Big Cypress and Okefenokee Marsh on the Louisiana-Florida line ).

The USFWS declared the red wolf endangered in 1967 and initiated a recovery program in 1973. Subsequently – the future of the species in the wild being deemed unlikely given the loss of habitat and crossbreeding with coyotes – over 400 wolf-like gulf coast canids have been collected. to initiate captive breeding. Only 14 of those many feral dogs were ultimately determined to be genetically “pure” red wolves, and the dozen of those who bred in captivity became the founders of the current population.

In 1987, red wolves were reintroduced to the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge: the first attempt to reintroduce a large carnivore into its former range. The following spring, biologists documented the first wild-born little red wolves in North Carolina since the animal’s disappearance.

The coast of North Carolina (as well as several southeastern islands where wolves are acclimated for release) has remained the outpost of wild red wolves in modern times; an attempted reintroduction in the 1990s Great Smoky Mountains National Park in the Southern Appalachians has been abandoned after the wolves have dispersed outside the park boundaries.

Last year, the USFWS announced a change in its red wolf strategy: Restricting wilderness salvage efforts to public areas in a single county in North Carolina while trying to double the captive population to 400. A number of conservation groups decried the announcement, and in September 2016, a judge banned the agency remove red wolves that do not pose a direct threat to pets or livestock from private lands.

Earlier this year, the USFWS solicited public comment on the changes it was proposing. An analysis of the roughly 55,000 comments received, conducted by the Wildlands Network and several other conservation organizations, suggested that 99.8% supported efforts to restore wild red wolves in North Carolina. The Conservation Coalition noted in a press release from this month of August that this support extended to the local level.

Zooming into northeastern North Carolina, more than two-thirds (68.4%) of comments from the current five-county recovery region supported the Red Wolf recovery program, undermining claims that residents locals would oppose the restoration of the red wolf, ”they wrote. .

You can read more about the USFWS approach to red wolf recovery. here.

The presence of red wolves makes the Alligator River and Pocosin Lakes refuges particularly awe-inspiring expressions of North Carolina’s wild heart. To fully appreciate it, do not forget to browse the Wildland Network Flickr page galleries: a rich cast of other characters from the Albemarle-Pamlico backcountry – including white-tailed deer, bobcats and many and many a lot of black bears – make cameos.

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Top header image: Don Sniegowski / Flickr


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