Can the red wolf survive extinction a second time?

In 1980, the US Fish and Wildlife Service removed the last 14 pure red wolves from the wild with the intention of raising them in captivity and repopulating the landscape. Seven years later, four males and four females were released to the Albemarle-Pamlico Peninsula in North Carolina. After reaching a population peak of around 130 animals in 2006, collisions with guns and vehicles have reduced their numbers to just two dozen. The USFWS is now on the verge of abandoning its efforts to save them, this time with no plan for how, when, and where to reunite red wolves with their natural habitat.

Although 43 facilities hold a total captive population of 230 animals, the red wolf may soon earn the despicable distinction of going extinct in the wild for the second time. “It’s heartbreaking,” said Maggie Howell, executive director of the Wolf Conservation Center in Salem, New York, with 20 of the cinnamon-colored animals in his care. “What kind of precedent does this set for future reintroduction programs? ”

It was recently leaked that Home Secretary Ryan Zinke is proposing rule changes that would effectively dismantle the Endangered Species Act.

The red wolf, Canis rufus, is a small cousin of the gray wolf, with large ears and long legs. Adapted to warmer climates, they once roamed the eastern United States from Pennsylvania to Florida and Texas. They are protected under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), although animals reintroduced to North Carolina are designated as a non-essential experimental population. But, as their numbers dwindle, the melodic, haunting howl that now echoes through the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge may soon be silenced.

In a document describing his proposal rule changes, the Fish and Wildlife Service is considering only a small group of less than 15 animals to maintain on two federal plots. The USFWS also recognizes that wolves would do what wolves do and leave the management area “regularly enough” to find mates and establish new territories. These stray wolves would have no protection under the new regulations, which will allow unrestricted killing on private, non-federal lands.

“This is an abandonment of salvage in the wild,” said Sierra Weaver, an attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center. Weaver’s team sued the USFWS in 2016 and won an injunction prohibiting the removal of wolves from private lands and prohibiting the Fish and Wildlife Service from issuing slaughter permits. This injunction remains in place as of this writing. She sees the agency’s action as a bit of legal jujitsu.

“What the Fish and Wildlife Service told the court is that we are changing the rules, so the rules under which this injunction was issued no longer apply,” Weaver explained. She believes that at some point the management of the program shifted from science to politics. “A couple of powerful individual landowners have managed to overcome the incredible success of this program. “

Red Cubs at the New York Wolf Conservation Center, one of 43 captive breeding facilities.


Over 200 red wolves are housed at 43 captive breeding facilities across the United States. Genetic diversity is maintained through the exchange of animals and “arranged marriages”.

Joseph Hinton is a researcher at the University of Georgia who has worked in the field with Red Wolves for 15 years. Speaking during a online seminar for the Wolf Conservation Center, he said that around 2014, the USFWS did “a 180 on its position.” They halted wolf reintroductions and red wolf implementation adaptive management plan. In 2016, the Fish and Wildlife Service announced drastic changes to the red wolf recovery program, proposing to reduce protected areas by 90%.

The reduction, from 1.7 million to 204,000 protected acres, is included in the USFWS rule change project that it plans to implement by November 2018. In Hinton’s view, “The Fish and Wildlife Service is basically setting the stage to end the project in North Carolina. . ”

In a written response to questions, the USFWS said that “various researchers” have looked at potential alternative sites, but that they would be intended for a similarly designated non-essential experimental population. Leopoldo Miranda, USFWS Deputy Regional Director for Ecological Services, wrote: “We fully support these efforts and will work with partners including national wildlife protection agencies and Native American tribes who may be interested in conservation. of the red wolf. According to the most recent service five-year status report, however, no other reintroduction sites were evaluated.

That would only leave the captive population to continue.

Can the red wolf survive indefinitely in zoos and conservation centers? “No,” Howell said emphatically. “It’s the last resort. Recovery cannot happen in captivity alone. Despite the best efforts of these facilities, “at some point it becomes artificial selection,” Hinton explained. The USFWS recognizes that a captive population of at least 400 individuals is necessary for long-term viability, almost double the existing number.

And it won’t be easy. “We’re running out of space,” said Ben Prater, director of field conservation at Defenders of Wildlife. Returning from a recent meeting of the very people who manage captive wolves, he told me, “Facilities need resources to expand and increase space, and this is one of the biggest constraints. right now. Miranda said the USFWS is working with these venues “to develop and support strategies to increase capacity,” but gave no details.

Which raises the question of money. Howell said the Wolf Conservation Center does not receive federal funding to participate in the red wolf recovery program. Their costs include the provision of pen space, food and veterinary care. There is also the cost of transportation when animals are moved to other facilities, often for “arranged marriages” to maintain genetic diversity. Rather than receiving money to support the rebirth of the red wolf, Howell said, “We are truly in-kind donors to the program.”

When asked about funding, the USFWS said $ 210,000 was budgeted for each fiscal year from 2014 to 2016. But according to Chris Lasher of the North Carolina Zoo, the USFWS has historically only funded the recovery center. home of the Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium in Washington. .

Even if the Fish and Wildlife Service identifies other reintroduction sites, it won’t be easier to start over elsewhere than to commit to making North Carolina work. Habitat throughout the traditional range of red wolves in the southeast is highly fragmented, and there is likely to be opposition wherever reintroduction is proposed. Coyotes, which have now colonized the eastern United States, pose a problem when a low population of red wolves makes it difficult to find a mate, resulting in crossbreeding and hybridization.

“The service knows how to make this program work, and they can make it work again if they want to,” Weaver said. A 2016 investigation found that 73% of North Carolina voters supported the Red Wolf’s recovery efforts, and 99% of the 55,000 public comments the USFWS received in 2017 supported the current recovery strategy.

Weaver has another concern: a potential rewrite of the historic endangered species law. “It’s really an open question what if you change the law or if you change the regulations, both of which are in play right now.”

For nearly 40 years, many people, organizations and the red wolves themselves have sacrificed, labored and invested in the survival of this American species. They once brought it back from extinction to the wild and created a conservation model for the reintroduction of the gray wolf in Yellowstone and the Mexican gray wolf in Arizona and New Mexico.

“These wolves are really part of something bigger than they possibly can possibly comprehend,” Howell said. “We just want to give these guys a chance.”

Wolf Conservation Center curator Rebecca Bose gives newborn red wolf puppies their first health check.


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