Maria Fotopoulos: Dwindling red wolf population points to alarming future for wildlife | Opinions


Listed as an endangered species in 1967, the red wolf (Canis rufus) was declared extinct in the wild in 1980.

Native to the southeastern United States for 10,000 years, the species has endured, albeit in small numbers, only because a small population of captive bred red wolves has been reintroduced to a 1.7 million acre recovery area in northeastern North Carolina.

Between 2002 and 2014, according to the Animal Welfare Institute (AWI), “the wild red wolf population consistently numbered over 100 animals”. But from there, the story headed south.

According to the AWI, by 2015 the red wolf population had dropped to around 50 to 75 animals. The following year showed more losses, with around 25 to 48 animals remaining.

As of October 2021, only eight Red Wolves are known to be in the wild. The AWI denounces the mismanagement by the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission and the US Fish and Wildlife Service are responsible.

Management of the program shifted from Red Wolf biologists to bureaucrats in Atlanta, far removed from field work. And landowners who didn’t like the recovery program continued to kill wolves, claiming their innocence – “we thought it was a coyote“.

Additionally, the USFWS has actually issued permits to kill red wolves on private land, even in the face of such small numbers. AWI writes, “Given the small and dwindling number of red wolves, the loss of a single wolf has enormous implications for the species.”

“The impacts are particularly severe when a mother wolf is lost, as it not only orphans her young and likely leads to their death, but also eliminates the opportunity for that particular wolf to contribute more litters to the population,” says AWI. .

“Furthermore, it disrupts the dynamics of the whole pack, increasing the likelihood that other red wolves will hybridize with coyotes: although red wolves tend to pair for life, red wolves may interbreed or hybridize with coyotes.”

To an outside observer, the obvious solution would seem to be greater wildlife protection in North Carolina, including stopping the killing of coyotes and wolves.

The level of frustration of those who care about these animals and work most closely with them to save them must be out of this world – only eight in the wild and only one state!

As I continue my self-education on the state of wildlife in the United States, an even more disturbing picture than I had imagined emerges from reading and research. The story of the red wolf is truly shocking.

As an important apex predator for global biodiversity, this species needs much more attention. A higher level of commitment to support a sustainable population in North Carolina is needed, more space and attention to captive breeding, and more support for the reintroduction of red wolves to other suitable areas where they could thrive.

It is equally important to increase public awareness of ways to encourage tolerance for wolves around the world and to reinforce non-lethal approaches where there is predator-livestock/human overlap.

The mistreatment of the gray wolf, a big cousin of the red wolf, shows how essential education is. Also brought to the brink of extinction in America, the the gray wolf has been reintroduced in certain areas and found footing in a few parts of the United States – and apparently as soon as there is a little footing, there are those of us who are all too eager to kill animals.

This suggested essential education should include the story of how it came to be that there are only eight red wolves left in the wild of the United States, whose 48 contiguous states are over 3 million square miles.

Like the cougar, bison, and other species, wolves have not escaped man’s rapacity to eliminate non-human life. Wildlife advocate and author Rick Lamplugh writes that in 1970, only about 700 wolves remained in the lower 48 states, up from about 2 million before settlers arrived, who quickly eradicated wolves east of the Mississippi.

Several organizations are working on issues related to the survival of red wolves, with several zoos and nature centers housing captive animals totaling over 200. Kudos to them. Among them are breeding programs run by the Wolf Conservation Center at its Endangered Species Facility in South Salem, New York.

It’s great there are committed organizationsbut it seems – again from the perspective of a peeking outsider – that we should be much further ahead with more animals and with more animals being reintroduced into the wild.

Even allowing for the fact that science can move slowly, we’re talking decades since the few remaining red wolves were removed from the wild and placed in captive programs.

One program that hopefully will prove useful in identifying suitable areas for red wolf reintroduction is the Gulf Coast Canine Project.

Breeding has occurred among coyotes, gray wolves, and eastern wolves, resulting in red wolf genetics in coyotes on the southwestern coast of Louisiana and the Gulf Coast of Texas – coyotes are become reservoirs of genetic information for the red wolves.

By tracking these coyotes with red wolf genes, researchers are evaluating the genetic history to see what’s left of the red wolf, seeking to understand behavior, and ultimately hope to inform the conservation and management of red wolves and coyotes.

For more information and ways to help the red wolf, visit the North Carolina Wildlife Federation, Endangered Wolf Center, Wolf Conservation Center and Gulf Coast Canine Projectand read Rick Lamplugh.

— Maria Fotopoulos writes about the link between overpopulation and biodiversity loss. Contact her on Facebook at Be the change for the animals or at Manure rackand follow her on Twitter: @BeTheChangeForAnimals. Click here for previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.

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