Red wolf: the fight to save one of the rarest animals on Earth | The threatened species



ATrying to locate one of the rarest animals on the planet, US government scientist Joe Madison pointed an archaic VHF tracking antenna at a tangle of thick vegetation and turned a few dials on the receiver. A red wolf, judging by the beeps, was nearby but well hidden.

“Did you hear that beep?” He’s a six-year-old male that we just heard from, ”said Madison, a sandy-bearded Tennessian who heads the US Fish and Wildlife Service’s (FWS) red wolf program. “I mean, obviously I can’t see anything.”

Sightings of red wolves are rare, not only because of their elusive nature, but also their plummeting population. Only about 30 creatures remain in the wild, in a corner of North Carolina, 18 of which are equipped with radio collars that Madison tries to pick up with his antenna.

An FWS Evaluation in 2016, warned that this vestige could completely disappear within eight years. The scenario is now even darker. “We’re already way ahead of that projection,” Madison said. “If we stay on the current path, it won’t be long before we lose the population. In fact, we only have one known breeding pair left.

Faced with increasingly harsh opposition to the presence of wolves from some neighboring landowners, the FWS has gradually withdrawn. The wild releases of captive puppies have ceased, as has the sterilization of invading coyotes to prevent hybridization.

In June, the Trump administration unveiled a plan, which has been brewing for several years, which would return the Red Wolf Protected Area to its federally owned core and allow people to shoot the species without impacting private lands. Conservation groups argue the plan will quickly suffocate the red wolf and have led the fight until courts.

“The impression we have is that fish and wildlife are tired of trying to save controversial species like wolves,” said Dr Ron Sutherland, environmentalist and red wolf expert at Wildlands Network. “They don’t have the budget or the support of Congress. It’s easier to let the wolves decline to the point where they can just unplug and we’re almost there. It wasn’t something Trump started, but Trump could definitely finish it.

The Alligator National Wildlife Refuge in North Carolina, federally owned land where a herd of red wolves live. Photograph: James M Hunt / Alamy

Madison takes issue with the idea that he and his colleagues are allowing the Red Wolf to slide into extinction. “We have by no means, form or form abandoned and we are fighting every day to do everything possible to retain this population,” he said. “None of us are here to watch this dying population. But it’s going to be a fight. “

Tens of thousands of red wolves once lived across a vast expanse from Texas to New York until the arrival of European settlers saw them scarred with a pest, with a bounty placed on them leading to mass slaughter. It turned out that the species would follow the path of eastern homing pigeons and cougars – randomly bombarded with guns until there was nothing left to shoot – before a new one rescue plan was not developed in the 1980s.

About 400 wolves were herded by the FWS in Louisiana and Texas, 14 of which were determined to be pure red wolves. With an elongated and slender stride, the red or fawn wolf, which is actually tawny to rusty in color, is generally smaller and more circumspect than its western gray cousin.

“They have long, skinny legs, in the winter they have these beautiful fluffy coats. And they’re screaming, ”said Sutherland, who took his son to hear the vocalizations. “It’s a beautiful, haunting sound and it kind of sends chills down your spine. They are just some pretty amazing animals.

It was decided to place this group of surviving Red Wolves on land found in the protruding jaw of eastern North Carolina, centered on the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge.

This federally owned land, essentially a scrub swamp with partially waterlogged woods, home to bears and white-mouthed snakes, spans approximately 250,000 acres.

Although declared extinct in the wild in 1980, the red wolf was given a second life as a non-essential experimental population. Protected by the Endangered Species Act, the red wolves performed well at first, with a captive breeding program that resulted in a total of 42 wolves being released in 1992.

Stretching to the confines of their habitat, the growing population was subsequently given more space to roam, seemingly safe from human damage. A total of five counties in North Carolina, covering 1.7 million acres, are now counted as the land of the red wolf. This area includes federal, state and private land – a development that has angered some landowners.

Red Wolves Puppies at the North Carolina Museum of Life &;  Sciences in Raleigh, North Carolina.
Red wolves at the North Carolina Museum of Life and Science in Raleigh, North Carolina. Photograph: Salwan Georges / The Washington Post / Getty Images

Red wolves are regularly killed in car crashes or disease, but the The main cause of death is now gunshots. From a peak of 151 animals in 2005, the population has dropped to one-fifth of that number.

The gunshot deaths “exploded” after North Carolina passed to a Republican governor in 2012 and allowed the nocturnal killing of coyotes, Sutherland said. Even with night vision goggles, it can be difficult to tell a coyote and a red wolf apart when aiming.

While it is illegal to kill a red wolf unless it attacks a person or property, no one has yet been successfully prosecuted for one of the many deaths.

“As landowners, we were concerned that something had been put on our property that we didn’t ask for, that we didn’t want,” said Wilson Daughtry, a farmer and entrepreneur who owns land in the area. red wolf. “They said, ‘Oh, don’t worry about that. They are experimental, they will never be a problem. Bullshit. No, I won’t miss them.

“For me, it’s more about infringements of private property rights. I’m really pissed off about this. Coming here and shoving these wolves down our throats, you won’t get any support like that.

Daughtry was lounging in a chair on an unusually warm February afternoon, stopping from work to install a pump on a remote property next to Alligator Lake, which is within the Five Red Wolves counties. He was wearing a paint-spotted shirt, camouflage cap, and knee pads.

Landowners like Daughtry blame the red wolf’s presence for a constellation of current or potential ailments, such as falling house prices, inability to reap crops if den wolves are in the way, and disruption. of the deer hunting season due to quarry frightening by a threat that bears teeth rather than weapons. Some even wonder if the red wolf qualifies as its own species, rather than a mix between gray wolves and coyotes.

“You ask 10 people in this county what the problem is and you’ll get 10 different answers,” Daughtry said. His wife has seen cats ravaged by wolves, while Daughtry himself said he was threatened by a wolf as he planted early morning corn about five years ago.

“This wolf got aggressive towards my dog ​​and I realized I was going to have to kill this wolf somehow,” he said. Unfortunately for Daughtry, he only had a potato rake and a wrench handy, so he hoisted his dog onto his tractor and waited half an hour for the wolf to retreat. “They’re not afraid of me,” he said. “These things are not afraid of humans.”

According to the FWS, no red wolf attacks on humans have been recorded since the experiment began in North Carolina in 1987. During this period, there have been seven documented predations by wolves on cattle. , mainly goats and chickens.

Land of Jett Ferebee, owner of land and farm in Creswell, North Carolina, where birds are among the few visible wildlife that remain on the land.
Land of Jett Ferebee, owner of land and farm in Creswell, North Carolina, where birds are among the few visible wildlife that remain on the land. Photograph: Jill Knight / Raleigh News & Observer / MCT via Getty Images

“It’s amazing that people are so pissed off about them,” Sutherland said, noting that deer populations actually peaked at wolf zenith in the mid-2000s, highlighting the role of red wolves as key component of a healthy ecosystem. “You have all these bears scattered around North Carolina and they have a different mythology behind them, the kind of teddy bear mystique, while the wolves are deep rooted like this thing that you have to get rid of.”

Much of the crucible for the red wolf’s imminent demise is vast fields of soybeans, corn and cotton. The flat farmlands are sometimes punctuated with grain silos, chicken coops and half-timbered houses, many of which collapse and are surrounded by vineyards. A few cows chew on tufts of red grass.

In this setting, it is not difficult to imagine the Red Wolf as an icon, a legendary survivor of human expansion.

Instead, the last red wolves on Earth will likely one day be found in one of 42 captive breeding facilities dotted around the United States.

“You don’t really look at people and say, ‘Wow, you look majestic when you walk down the street.’ But look at them, ”said Sherry Samuels, watching four wolves move up and down from their landscaped enclosure, eyes fluttering in our direction.

Samuels is director of the animal department at the Museum of Life & Science in Raleigh, North Carolina, a place that welcomes about 500,000 visitors a year to see its red wolves, bears, and other attractions. This facility and others are trying to keep the wolf’s gene pool from drying up.

“It’s just an awesome thing to watch them, how they care about each other and how they each have their roles,” Samuels said, looking at the wolf family in awe. “If we lose them, we lose an opportunity to show that we are better. As humans, we can do better.

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