North Carolina Red Wolf Struggles For Love Of Conservation And Survival | Local News

DURHAM, NC — What may be America’s original wolf species faces a far different battle for survival on the other side of the nation than the predatory debates of the Rocky Mountains.

“Grey wolves are charismatic megafauna, but red wolves have never had this kind of love for conservation,” said DeLene Beeland, author of the recently published book, “The Secret World of Red Wolves: The Fight to Save North America’s Other Wolf”.

“The difference with red wolves is that they have been absent from the landscape for a much longer period than gray wolves,” Beeland said. “As soon as Europeans started coming to the East Coast in the 1700s, they were hunting them. They were nearly wiped out by the 1850s, although small pockets of them survived.

Now a federally endangered species lurking in a remote corner of what was once North Carolina’s Great Dismal Swamp, red wolves exist in a contentious world of hunting regulations and prosecutions. But just as red wolves are perhaps half the size of their gray wolf brethren, arguments in the East have a much different scale and flavor. Additionally, Gray Wolves never had to wear sedative-laden radio collars like Red Wolves once did.

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The red wolf (Canis rufus) and gray wolf (Canis lupus) share a common ancestor that likely originated in the southwestern United States 1 to 2 million years ago. At some point, some of these wolves followed prehistoric horse species to Eurasia, where they evolved into the modern gray wolf. These wolves naturally repopulated North America around 300,000 years ago, while modern horses must have taken a ride with Spanish conquistadors in the 1500s.

The red and eastern wolf species stayed behind and evolved into a common small predator along the Appalachian Mountains. Some biologists claim that the American coyote evolved from these wolves left behind between 150,000 and 300,000 years ago.

In 1987, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service used a zoo-bred population of red wolves to reestablish the animal in the 153,000-acre Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge in North Carolina. Most of the original 100 federally endangered red wolves were bred at the Point Defiance Zoo in Tacoma, Wash., from wild-caught red wolves in Texas and Louisiana.

But what Beeland called a “raw DNA study” in the early 1990s reported that red wolves were actually coyote hybrids. The research nearly blew up the reintroduction effort.

“It was a huge black eye for the Red Wolf program,” Beeland said. “They were one of the crown jewels of the endangered species program. Then that newspaper said it was just a wild dog, and you spent all that money. This stigma has never gone away.

On May 13, U.S. District Court Judge Terrence Boyle ordered an end to coyote hunting in five North Carolina counties where the red wolf has been reintroduced. The ruling remains in effect for six months while a lawsuit to permanently end coyote hunting in the area progresses.

The North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission last July authorized unlimited coyote hunting on private land and 24-hour hunting on public land for those with permits in the five-county area. The Southern Environmental Law Center and three other conservation groups have sued, saying the liberal rules increase the likelihood of red wolves being mistakenly killed.

Red wolves outweigh coyotes by an average of 20 pounds. But they share similar coloring and shape, both standing about 2 feet tall at the shoulder and 4 feet long from nose to tail. A gray wolf weighs between 80 and 120 pounds and spans about 6 feet in length.

North Carolina hunters killed about 25,000 coyotes last year. Only about 100 red wolves live in 18 to 22 packs in and around the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge on the eastern edge of North Carolina.

This population remains strictly controlled, Beeland said. During each breeding season, wildlife officials radio-collar most adults and fly over the area to locate dens. After the puppies are born, biologists take blood samples from each litter.

“If some show up as hybrids, they come back and destroy those animals,” Beeland said. “It’s a very heavy technique.”

FWS biologists have also tried using sterilized coyotes in the area. The idea is that these sterile animals will keep other coyotes out of wolf territory and reduce the risk of hybridization.

Early in the reintroduction effort, public safety was a big concern. So big, Beeland said, that famed wolf researcher David Mech helped the USFWS develop a remote-triggered collar that could inject sedatives into a wolf’s neck in an emergency.

“The idea was that if a wolf broke into someone’s house and grabbed someone’s baby, they could trigger it from two to five miles away and calm the wolf down,” Beeland said. “But there were issues with the salt water corroding the mechanism and it only worked for about a mile. Basically, it was a publicity stunt. They only deployed it once and it didn’t work, and they ended up shooting the wolf with a regular dart gun. They went all out to reduce public anxiety and then it just went away.

A 2010 Duke University study (http://bit.ly/1njKUnl) of the reintroduction of the red wolf in North Carolina found that public safety lagged behind issues such as the use of taxpayer dollars in scrutinizing public comments about wolf conservation efforts. Just as many commentators were unhappy with the potential impact of red wolves on deer hunting or the general mistrust of government as a danger wolves pose to people, and more than double opposed the use of taxpayers’ money in the program.

Meanwhile, gray wolves in the Rocky Mountains have fallen from an original reintroduced population of 66 wolves in 1995-1996 to 1,691, according to the 2013 FWS annual report (http://1.usa.gov/1t31d5l).

This reintroduction program, along with similar ones for Mexican gray wolves and American polecats, was modeled after the North Carolina red wolf project. Beeland said she came across it while working in predator ecology at university, researching the Mexican wolf.

“I grew up in the southeast, in Florida, and I had never heard of this animal,” Beeland said. “When I moved to North Carolina, I thought I might write a magazine article and found that no one had written a book. There was this big hole in the literature.

Reporter Rob Chaney can be reached at 523-5382 or rchaney@missoulian.com.

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