Love is in the air – and conservationists Red Wolf are taking notice | WFAE 90.7
Joe Madison, hands in his pockets, watches the fresh tracks in the sand with keen interest. “They may have been there since this morning,” he said.
The intern next to him raises a spiked antenna above his head and twists it from left to right. A radio receiver, wired to the antenna and looped over his shoulder, crackles with static electricity. She listens, turns a few knobs on the receiver and carefully turns the antenna. Then she stops.
“That’s a little low,” she says over the white noise. “But do you hear him?”
There is a happy, rhythmic tinkle behind the static. The antenna picks up signals from an animal wearing a radio collar in the area. And according to the ping, it’s close.
It’s almost dusk at Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge, a 240-square-mile piece of land on a mainland peninsula near Manteo on the Outer Banks. It is cold and calm. A flock of white birds flies near a line of trees over a mile away. The group looks across the field, but there is nothing but long, dead grass, farm equipment, and a canal full of dark water.
But somewhere out there is a member of one of the world’s rarest species: a red wolf. There are fewer than two dozen left in the wild.
“These guys are pretty elusive,” Madison says. “So even though we know exactly where they are, we still don’t see them.”
Red wolves are shy and mostly nocturnal. They vaguely resemble coyotes with their long legs, reddish-brown fur, and pointed ears. They weigh 45 to 80 pounds, about half the size of gray wolves – the kind found in the western part of the United States. They forge close ties with each other. Young wolves will stay with their parents for a few years and help raise their siblings.
There are 12 radio-collared red wolves running wild in eastern North Carolina. But based on sightings and camera traps, Madison estimates there are about 20.
The female they are tracking and her two daughters have been eluding Madison, the director of the US Fish and Wildlife Service’s red wolf recovery program, since Dec. 3. They buried little rubber traps designed to trap a wolf’s paw and baited them. with meat and feces that may entice a closer look.
Although they boil the traps and rub them with dirt to remove the smell of humans, the wolves know where the traps are. They scratched the places where they are buried, peed on them and ate the bait. And yet the traps remain empty. It’s frustrating.
“Especially since it’s all about helping them,” Madison says. “If only we could talk to them and say, ‘Look, we’re just trying to get you a mate. “”
Less than a week later, victory. They find the female caught in a trap on the edge of the same field.
There’s a special kind of relief in catching it. Usually, Madison wouldn’t go to such lengths to play Cupid, but he fights to save the Red Wolves from extinction.
This winter, finding mates for Alligator River’s red wolves is especially important. The species, which once ranged from Texas to Florida to New Jersey, was declared extinct in the wild in 1980. Captive wolves were reintroduced to the Alligator River seven years later and the program was first declared a success. But between 2013 and 2019, the number of wolves in the wild dropped from around 100 to 20, mostly due to cars, gunfire and decisions at the state and federal levels to alter established methods of protecting wolves.
In 2019, there were no breeding pairs in the wild and no puppies were born – a first since their reintroduction.
The efforts of the Fish and Wildlife Service and conservation groups this winter are crucial if the species is to survive outside of captive breeding programs. Carefully choosing wolves to mate helps boost genetic diversity and prevent debilitating disease inbreeding. If the chosen pairs have time to bond by the end of winter, wolf mating season, the hope is that the cubs will be born in the spring.
But first, someone has to catch them.
A male, flown in from a Florida shelter, was chosen for the wild female recently captured from the Alligator River. They were placed together in an acclimatization pen in the same field where she was captured. Another acclimatization enclosure through the refuge houses a wild male. Madison hopes they can catch the wolf from the Florida site to mate with him. A third duo, already together, move into the nearby Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge.
“Theoretically, they bond with each other, they’re a pair, and the wolf that’s new to the area — when we finally release them — would be less likely to run away,” Madison says. “They breed for life.”
The plan, if all goes well, is to have three wild breeding pairs this year. In the long term, this is to bring the population back to self-sustaining levels, a daunting feat given its challenges.
The red wolf is a controversial species. Much of the backlash in eastern North Carolina began in the late 1980s when wolves released at Alligator River began spreading onto private land. The fires were fanned again in 2014 when a judge restricted coyote hunting in Dare, Beaufort, Hyde, Tyrrell and Washington counties because red wolves are sometimes mistaken for coyotes and shot.
Some residents of this rural part of the state don’t want to compete with wolves for game, especially white-tailed deer. Others are suspicious of the Fish and Wildlife Service, the government in general, or fear that wolves will attack their families and pets.
“We know that when the red wolf program started in eastern North Carolina, there wasn’t a lot of conversation between the people who live there and our government putting the wolves there,” Chris Lasher, the animal management supervisor at the North Carolina Zoo, said. “People in northeastern North Carolina – they weren’t valued, they weren’t listened to. And that’s one of the biggest mistakes we’ve made.
Under pressure from state officials and local landowners, the Fish and Wildlife Service scaled back recovery efforts in 2014. It limited management to public lands like the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge and allowed three landowners landowners to kill wolves on their property.
In 2018, conservation groups sued the Fish and Wildlife Service for violating the Endangered Species Act, which tasks the agency with protecting critically endangered red wolves. The US District Court for Eastern North Carolina ruled in favor of the conservation groups. The Fish and Wildlife Service has since resumed stepping up the red wolf recovery program.
There’s some hope that the wild red wolf population could be back to its peak, but there’s a long way – and a lot of suffering – to go.
“If we are able to do the processes that have been shown and proven to be successful before and come back to them and reduce the number of human-caused deaths, I have no doubt that is possible,” says Madison.
Lasher is also the coordinator of the Red Wolf Species Survival Plan, or SSP. He is responsible for ensuring that all zoos, reserves and other facilities that have red wolves manage them in a concerted effort. It is his job to ensure that the species does not become extinct in captivity.
“They’re an all-American wolf,” Lasher said. “You can’t find it anywhere else but in the United States. So we should be proud of that.
The North Carolina Zoo in Asheboro has 21 red wolves, including six breeding pairs. While the majority are kept in the woods away from the main zoo grounds, two – a male and a female – are on public display. They spend their days people watching, seemingly oblivious to the regular screams of excited children.
“She’s a big jester. She looks a little more like your typical wolf,” says zookeeper Curtis Malott. “Red wolves don’t want to be around people. wolves are more afraid of you than you are of them” comes from this species.
Although captive adults are not released into the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge, maintaining a healthy population in places like the North Carolina Zoo is also important. Only about 20 wild wolves live in the wild, but 245 red wolves live in captivity across the United States.
“We call it an insurance population,” Lasher says. “The idea of the SSP is to make sure there are enough animals alive that if US Fish and Wildlife, which is in charge of recovery programs, wants to expand that recovery program, we have animals. “
Like Madison, Lasher is hoping for puppies this year. While the Fish and Wildlife Service must trap wolves in the wild, facilities involved in the captive breeding program trade wolves to forge genetically diverse pairs.
“I traded wolves with Lowry Park in Tampa this year, and met them at a truck stop on the Georgia-South Carolina line,” he says. “I opened the trunk. I gave them my wolves, they gave me theirs and we turned around and went the other way.
But even when a pair looks great on paper, there still has to be chemistry.
“It’s like people. It’s kind of a roll of the dice,” Madison says.
While some wolves get along well, others just can’t make it work. A captive male and female that Madison once helped care for at the Red Wolf Center outside Columbia, North Carolina, were cold towards each other.
“They were together here for two years, maybe two and a half years. She never left him in the den all the time. We had to build a separate den for him,” Madison explains. “So just like people, personalities matter.”
Those wolves were moved elsewhere, and Madison is now caring for their replacements — a pair from the North Carolina Zoo who are too old for the captive breeding program.
“They are constantly together,” he says.
The wolves in question watch him suspiciously from the other side of their enclosure. They walk together on long slender legs, with pricked ears. There’s something wild about their big glowing eyes – but, above, there’s also something vulnerable.
This story was produced by Media Hub at the UNC School of Media and Journalism. To learn more, visit Media Hub.