Roll Back Red Wolf’s Recovery Effort


The red wolf is one of the most endangered wild canids in the world. Photo: US Fish and Wildlife Service / B. Bartel

First of two parts

NORTHEAST NORTH CAROLINA – While the US Fish and Wildlife Service’s red wolf recovery program here marked its 25e anniversary in 2012, it received nationwide accolades as a groundbreaking conservation achievement. Barely four years later, he is on the verge of failure, a fate stoked by politics, mistaken identity and public ill will.

Ron sutherland
Ron sutherland

“Something is happening and I don’t understand why the agency has been so willing to back down,” said Ron Sutherland, a Durham-based scientist for the Wildlands Network. “The Fish and Wildlife Service’s red wolf program has been basically drawn and quartered. “

Sutherland said there had been no response from the agency to a petition submitted in July and signed by 500,000 people in support of wild red wolves, which are protected under the Endangered Species Act. of disappearance.

Critics say the program was a failure from the start and the Fish and Wildlife Service released wolves on private property without written permission from the landowners.

The red wolves had been declared extinct in the wild when four pairs of captive wolves were transferred from Texas to the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge in 1987. Through intensive management tactics which included the introduction of reared puppies in captivity in dens with puppies born in the wild, the population was steadily increasing. At its peak in 2005-07, there were approximately 130 Red Wolves in the Forest Salvage Zone covering 1.7 million acres of public and private land in Hyde, Dare, Tyrrell, Washington and Beaufort counties.

Today, only 45 wolves remain in the Northeastern North Carolina wilderness, along with about 200 in captivity, and Fish and Wildlife has dramatically reduced the recovery program.

At the height of the program, about 10 years ago, around 130 red wolves roamed their natural habitats in Hyde, Dare, Tyrrell, Washington and Beaufort counties.  Map: Fish and Wildlife of the United States
At the height of the program, about 10 years ago, around 130 red wolves roamed their natural habitats in Hyde, Dare, Tyrrell, Washington and Beaufort counties. Map: Fish and Wildlife of the United States

In September, the agency announced, after a two-year review of the program, that by 2017, it planned to reduce the wolf range to an area within the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge and Field of military shooting from County Dare. Wolves outside this range would be moved to captive populations that reside in many zoos.

“It was disheartening how they wanted to bring the animals back almost to where they started the program,” said Kim Wheeler, executive director of the Red Wolf Coalition, a nonprofit education and advocacy group. , based in County Tyrrell. “You can only have a limited number of wolves in that much space – everyone needs their own room and territory.”

The red wolf’s recovery would require changes to “secure” both wild and captive populations, the agency said. Further, he acknowledged that there were questions as to whether the genetics of wolves could be classified under the Endangered Species Act.

l-kimwheelerShortly after the agency’s announcement, U.S. District Judge Terrence Boyle issued a preliminary injunction prohibiting the removal of wolves from private property unless it can be demonstrated that there is a threat to humans, pets or livestock. In issuing the order, Boyle accused the Wildlife Service of failing to adequately protect the wolves.

“What has happened lately is that individual landowners have demanded that wolves be removed from their property because they don’t like them,” said Jason Rylander, senior counsel for Defenders of Wildlife, the one of the complainants. “They cannot be removed just because they are present on the property.”

An earlier lawsuit the same judge ruled led to a 2014 ban on nighttime coyote hunting in the recovery area, a practice conservation groups have blamed on an increase in wolf bullet deaths.

Jason rylander
Jason rylander

The end result of the recent injunction is that while it is in effect, the Wildlife Service’s plan to eliminate wolves in all areas except Dare County and the Alligator River will not be cleared, essentially preventing its plan.

The program’s journey from daring experiment to successful innovation to desperation for its future is perhaps more dramatic and compressed than most accounts of wildlife conservation efforts.

Twenty years after the first red wolves were released on Alligator River lands, more than 100 wolves were residents, and the program has been credited as a model for other successful efforts.

“It was the prototype of the wolf recovery program that gave weight to the wolf recovery programs in Yellowstone and the northern Rockies, as well as the Mexican wolf,” said Walter Medvid, executive director of the International. Wolf Center in Minneapolis, in a press release. 2007 article in The Virginian-Pilot.

Medvid said large predators such as wolves are good for ecological stability and help keep prey populations healthy and vigorous.

A <a class=red wolf in captivity. Photo: John Froschauer / Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium” width=”200″ height=”301″ data-srcset=” 300w,×200.jpg 133w,×400.jpg 266w” sizes=”(max-width: 200px) 100vw, 200px”/>
A red wolf in captivity. Photo: John Froschauer / Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium

Smaller than gray wolves but larger than coyotes, red wolves weigh around 55 to 85 pounds and are brown with red spots behind their ears. Long ago they ranged from southern New England to Florida and as far west as central Missouri and Texas before being gradually hunted to near extinction. In the 1970s, it was believed that less than 100 red wolves existed on the Gulf Coast.

An analysis of species characteristics was carried out by the wildlife department before 14 wolves were selected to begin a captive breeding program. Four pairs of these wolves were chosen to be released in 1987 at Alligator River, an area with natural boundaries and abundant prey.

Undeveloped and heavily forested northeastern North Carolina seemed like perfect habitat for red wolves, a shy creature not known for its aggression towards humans. But the red wolf feeds on deer and roams private as well as public land. Environmentalists may view the wolf as an important part of the ecosystem, but for a significant number of landowners and hunters, the wolf is little more than an intruder and a competitor. And to the wolf’s misfortune, he looks a lot like a coyote, which arrived in the area shortly after the wolf was reintroduced. Shooting at wolves is illegal; coyote hunting is permitted.

Wolves will mate with coyotes if their partner is killed, exacerbating a threat to the species: hybridization. But the Wildlife Service’s recovery team devised an effective tactic that used a neutered coyote to act as a “placeholder” to keep other coyotes out of its range. Before being abandoned, the measure was found to reduce the problem of diluting the genes of the red wolf with those of the coyotes. The controversial question of whether the red wolf is a separate species is still being debated by the wildlife service.

A litter of <a class=Red Cubs was born in captivity. Photo: USFWS / A. Beyer” width=”300″ height=”225″ data-srcset=” 640w,×150.jpg 200w,×300.jpg 400w” sizes=”(max-width: 300px) 100vw, 300px”/>
A litter of Red Cubs was born in captivity. Photo: USFWS / A. Beyer

Another effective method developed by the recovery team is to put captive-bred puppies of similar age with other puppies in a wild den, after spraying them with a little wild puppy urine. Much to the team’s delight, the mothers accepted the puppies as their own, helping to ensure the genetic viability of the species.

But from the start, gunshot mortality was a growing problem with the management of the red wolf. In 2003, 28 wolves were shot. Between 2004 and 2011, 52 more wolves were shot, despite sentences of up to one year in prison and a fine of $ 100,000. When coyote hunting was extended in 2012 to nighttime hours, the death toll from wolf bullets rose again.

But when the judge subsequently restricted the coyote hunt, the political winds seemed to turn bitterly on the wolves. Pages filled with nasty wolf comments began to appear on Internet hunting forums. Lawmakers have started to hear voters’ demands to do something about the wolves.

In January 2015, the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission passed a resolution calling on the wildlife department to end the red wolf project, and another resolution calling on the wildlife department to end all “unauthorized releases” of wolves. and their offspring from private lands.

Senator Thom Tillis
Senator Thom Tillis

US Senator Thom Tillis, RN.C., is among those who have called for the elimination of the Red Wolf’s recovery program.

Tillis, speaking in September at a House natural resources committee hearing on the program, said the program had failed to meet recovery goals for the red wolf population while negatively affecting them. North Carolina landowners and populations of several other native species. He said 514 private landowners and farmers had sent individual requests to the Fish and Wildlife Service not to allow red wolves on their land.

“Before doing anything more in North Carolina, I think it makes more sense to shut down the program to find out how to do it right and build credibility with landowners,” Tillis said during the hearing. “There is a history of less than respectful dialogue between the people of North Carolina and the Fish and Wildlife Service. This will be an issue my office will focus on as long as I am a United States Senator. “

Wheeler, of the Red Wolf Coalition, said the issue was more political than she had ever thought. “Certainly our red wolves are caught in this political mess,” she said.

Watch the video of the House Committee on Natural Resources on September 21. Senator Thom Tillis’ questions and remarks begin at around 1:24:45 a.m.

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