Red Wolf Wars

I mourn the loss of things my children and I will never see, whether it’s the mass migration of passenger pigeons or the white blossoms of the American chestnut covering the mountains. Among these wounds, there is a lot of hope, a hope that can be seen, heard and felt. For example, one can travel to the Cataloochee Valley in the Great Smoky Mountains to hear the majestic, piercing cry of an elk bugle. This species was once lost in our mountains but is beginning to recover and reclaim its native land.

But I can’t ignore the silence of the animals you no longer hear in the Smokies. Only a few decades ago, you could still hear the howls and cries of the red wolf. Although the red wolf has been silenced in the Smokies, it can still be heard in the wilds of eastern North Carolina. This marshy fortress is the only place in the world where endangered red wolves roam freely.

The red wolf nearly became extinct in the 1950s due to aggressive predator control programs. The red wolf population was so severely decimated that it was declared extinct in the wild in 1980. In a last ditch effort, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service rounded up all remaining red wolves to replenish an “experimental population” .

In 1987, a breeding population of red wolves was released at the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge on a remote coastal peninsula in eastern North Carolina. The wolves that were released consisted of only four mating pairs. From this first generation, the population now numbers more than 100 animals.

As the population grew, the recovery program came under increasing scrutiny and attack from unlikely enemies. The North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission recently passed a series of resolutions aimed at undermining red wolf protections and outright destroying the species. They say it’s too difficult, too expensive, too controversial and too late to protect the red wolf. I say, welcome to conservation.

Too difficult ?

Conservation is inherently challenging, but when did that stop us? What if we had given up the grizzly, the gray wolf or the bald eagle? Can you imagine our national symbol being relegated to a simple image on the back of a coin? The North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission is only interested in a future without the red wolf. In my view, the real challenge is to revamp the good old boy polishing the apple politics that permeates these agencies tasked with serving the public.

Too expensive?

In 2007, the last year the data was compiled, a total of $1.4 million in federal funds was spent on red wolf conservation efforts. That’s less than 1% of what was spent on all endangered mammals combined. Compare that to the bald eagle, a recovered and delisted species, which cost $9.5 million.

And guess how much the state of North Carolina spent on red wolf recovery in 2007? A paltry and embarrassing $1,523. That’s about $15 per wild red wolf for the whole year. I guess the NC Wildlife Resources Commission spends over $1,500 a year on coffee and donuts for their meetings.

Too controversial?

When European settlers began their war on nature in the United States, the only good predator was a dead predator. We thought with fewer predators there was more game. We soon learned that ecology is not so simple as disease has spread, rangelands have turned to dust and forests have been stripped of new growth.

Past predator eradication policies have damaged ecosystems and tipped the balance of nature in drastic directions. Nowhere have these lessons been more evident than in the East. We have lost almost all of our predators and even our prized game species. Today we celebrate the return of white-tailed deer, wild turkey and now elk. But we’ve only just come to recognize the incredible value of predators like wolves and cougars to these game populations and to entire ecosystems. For many agencies, however, outdated attitudes toward predators persist.

Too late?

“We are doomed.” “Things have gotten so bad that we are going to have to live with it. “Species are disappearing all the time with no real consequences.” I’ve heard all these statements from conservation professionals. It’s understandable to sometimes feel that way. Aldo Leopold, one of the founding fathers of conservation, wrote: “One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds”.

Too often, however, we allow these wounds to fester rather than heal. Many conservation interests today embrace pessimism, focusing on the scale of the challenge rather than the size of the solution.

It’s not too late for the 100 Red Wolves of Eastern North Carolina. Do you think the red wolf wants to roam the confines of an enclosure alone as the last member of its kind? Is this the future we want for the most endangered wolf in the world? The red wolf will fight for its existence, and so will we. It’s never too late to try. We must not lose hope, because it is a wound that we can heal.

Why is the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission (NCWRC) proposing to end the Red Wolf Recovery Program, and what can be done?

In January 2015, the NCWRC passed two resolutions calling on the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS) to end the red wolf recovery program and capture and remove all red wolves from private lands. This resolution threatens the very existence of the species. More than 27 years of recovery would be interrupted and the species would once again become extinct in the wild. The reasons given by the NCWRC are that the recovery program was a failure, that wolves are hybridizing with coyotes, and that rising sea levels will force wolves to settle on private land. The latter is ironic since the state of North Carolina does not recognize the reality of climate change and has passed a law banning any discussion of sea level rise until 2016.

Public feedback is crucial. Howl for Wolves: Let the US Fish and Wildlife Service know that red wolves are worth protecting and the recovery program should be continued. Email your comments to Cynthia Dohner, Southeast Regional Director for the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, at [email protected] and Dan Ashe, director of the US Fish & Wildlife Service, at [email protected]

Is there a chance of ever bringing the red wolf back to the Smokies and/or southern Appalachia?

Alligator River represents the only place where red wolves have been successfully reintroduced into the wild. Other reintroduction programs have been launched but have failed. Red wolves were released into Great Smoky Mountains National Park in the early 1990s, but were recaptured after the wolves left park boundaries in search of prey. Fearing conflicts with neighboring cattle ranchers, the program ended in 1998.

For the red wolf to return to southern Appalachia, human attitudes must change. With rising sea levels threatening the coastal population, the best hope for the red wolves is to return to the vast tracts of public lands in western North Carolina.

Do wolves and coyotes interbreed? Are these shy wolves a good thing or a bad thing?

While wolves and coyotes share much of their genes, they are classified as separate species and managed as such. For most of their history, coyotes and red wolves did not interbreed because most coyotes inhabited the western states and their migrations were suppressed by healthy wolf populations. As wolves were exterminated from their original range, the range of the coyote expanded. With wolves becoming increasingly isolated, healthy wolf pack dynamics collapsed, and wolves looking for mates began to interbreed with coyotes. This interbreeding caused the genetic introgression of coyotes into red wolf populations and produced coyote/wolf hybrids sometimes referred to as coy-wolves. Only a healthy population of red wolves that is allowed to thrive can overcome the biological invasion of coyotes.

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