New hope for the red wolf?

ShowMe and Imani were ready to be pioneers. They cooperated with other members of their pack, ate prey that had been struck by cars, and stayed away from people, all useful characteristics for surviving in the wild.

In late April, the two-year-old Red Wolf siblings traveled by charter flight from the Endangered Wolf Center in Eureka, Missouri, to northeastern North Carolina. Once fitted with radio tracking collars, they were installed in acclimatization enclosures and paired with potential mates. Soon after, the four were released to the Alligator River and Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Areas. This is the first time since 1998 that adult red wolves born in captivity in managed care facilities have experienced life in the wild.

This spring has been an important time for the endemic American wolf, one of the country’s most endangered species. Until April, only 10 red wolves were still alive in a five-county area of ​​North Carolina. No wild litter had been born for two years. But after discovering a new wild litter this season, the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) slipped four captive-born puppies into the den. The mother accepted the new arrivals as her own.

Akron Zoo cubs placed in reception den | Photo courtesy of USFWS

Life in the wild for the nation’s most endangered wolf is fraught with danger. This was painfully clear with the news on June 9 that ShowMe’s potential partner was found dead, most likely hit by a vehicle. However, between the three remaining adult wolves and the four fed puppies, the wild population increased dramatically. “These animals represent hope for the future of the species,” said Regina Mossotti of the Endangered Wolf Center, who helped introduce ShowMe and Imani to their new home.

While this is a big time for American zoos, wildlife sanctuaries and other facilities that are home to around 250 captive red wolves, some advocates stress that this release must be the first step, not the last. “It’s important to remember that these releases were due to a court order,” said lawyer Ramona McGee of the Southern Environmental Law Center, who sued the USFWS on behalf of three conservation groups. “This case is not over yet. This is just the beginning.

McGee’s organization sued the USFWS in November, alleging the agency violated endangered species law by banning previously effective management techniques to increase numbers of wild red wolves. These include the fostering of puppies, which the USFWS last sued in 2014. The plaintiff groups also called for urgent action to secure the release of the red wolves while the litigation continued. .

Judge Terrence Boyle ruled in January that the agency had “probably” violated the endangered species law and ordered the USFWS to work out a plan to release the red wolf. The USFWS has announced that it will release a pair of adult wolves. The Law Center filed a legal protest, and the USFWS, in a modified plan, increased its pledge to two pairs.

Certainly, releasing adult red wolves can pose more challenges than welcoming puppies. To give wolves the optimum chance to acclimatize to a new environment, it is best to skip the summer because of the heat and October to December because of the hunting season, says Kim Wheeler, executive director of the Red Wolf Coalition, based in Columbia, North Carolina.

Ideal scenarios include the release of an established captive-breeding pair with no current litter or a pregnant female with her mate. Proponents say, however, that waiting for ideal conditions is a luxury for a species on the brink of extinction.

Endangered Wolves Center Staff Transporting a Red Wolf | Photo courtesy of the Endangered Wolf Center

The slow pace of red wolf recovery in recent years could be due to pressure from some private landowners near the 1.7 million acre red wolf recovery area who do not want wolves on their property.

“I would like to understand the reluctance of the USFWS to do more to save the red wolf, but it doesn’t,” says Collette Adkins, senior counsel for the Center for Biological Diversity, who sued the USFWS over this. topic in 2019. “Red wolves, unlike gray wolves, pose virtually no threat to livestock. Support for the red wolves is high in North Carolina, including from the governor’s office. I just don’t know why a handful of wolf-hostile landowners have so much influence over this federal agency.

In a statement, the USFWS said it was determined to recover the wolf and cited “widespread disinformation about this species” as a challenge. “We want to change the narrative of the red wolf to reflect the cultural, historical and ecological importance of this species. It’s no easy task and can take decades of trial and error, ”said Jennifer M. Koches, USFWS public affairs specialist.

“Red wolf recovery is different and potentially more complex than gray wolf recovery, where there are large tracts of public land,” Koches said. “The red wolf appears in a landscape made up of a patchwork of land holdings, which further increases the importance of the human dimension aspects of any path to recovery. We must work together to provide the right environment for their success.

For his part, Wheeler worked closely with USFWS field staff and said “these are such committed individuals as you will never be able to find on this Earth. I just think that management and field staff have not always agreed on what should happen.

Given the political and ecological challenges, do red wolves have a realistic chance of successfully resettling in the wild? The USFWS and its advocates will closely monitor the evolution of the current population. The year also contains other upcoming milestones to help answer this question: The USFWS is due to submit a progress report on wolf recovery efforts to court by August 15, and in November, the Parties to the SELC lawsuit will appear in court to provide updates on any future Wolf releases.

Beyond all of this, the USFWS still needs to create a full recovery plan for the red wolf by February 2023. Mossotti of the Endangered Wolf Center is among those who are eager for the USFWS to identify at least one other area in the area. the southeastern United States, the historic range of wolves, where they could be released. As the only large carnivore native only to the United States and a key part of the ecosystem, the red wolf is “our national treasure,” she says. “He’s our wolf.”

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