The quest to save the rarest dog Red Wolves suffers setbacks

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In early 2022, a total of 10 red wolves were released from captivity at wildlife refuges in eastern North Carolina, as part of a court-mandated acceleration of the Fish’s longstanding recovery program. and Wildlife Service to restore these critically endangered animals. This took place after months of careful planning and collaboration between zoos, wildlife sanctuaries and biologists managing the recovery of the red wolf.

A total of three breeding pairs and a family pack of five red wolves were released into the Alligator River and Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuges, after spending weeks in isolated acclimation enclosures in the area. One pair was a wild female placed with a captive-born male in the hopes that they could bond as mates. The releases nearly doubled the number of known red wolves in the landscape to around 20.

Their first hesitant steps into the wild were captured by trail cameras for the world to see – and hailed by conservation groups as a ‘new start’ for the beleaguered red wolf‘s recovery programme, which , after decades of steady growth, had experienced a decline in recent years. years.

A litter of six ginger cubs, born at the Alligator River shelter shortly after – the first born in the wild in three years – offered another sign of hope. The puppies appear to be growing and thriving, and have been spotted frolicking through the shelter’s forests and fields and howling alongside their parents.

But trying to recover a species from the brink of extinction is not without its challenges, as those involved in the process know all too well – indeed, dramatic ups and downs have marked the past decade as the ” American wolf” struggles to regain a foothold in an area. where he once roamed freely. Of the 10 captive-born wolves released this year, six died and three were returned to captivity, an unfortunate blow for the program.

It reminds us that “conservation is an incredible challenge,” says Regina Mossotti, who helps lead the Association of Zoos and Aquariums’ red wolf conservation program.

Hard road to recovery

September 13 marked the 35th anniversary of the original reintroduction of red wolves, in which eight captive-born canines were released into North Carolina in a first-of-its-kind experiment in the “rewilding” of a native predator officially declared extinct. After a bumpy start as field biologists learned more about the behavior of red wolves in the wild and developed innovative strategies to manage their recovery, the population grew, peaking in 2012 at more than 100 animals in numerous packs. and remaining stable for several years.

But the encroachment of coyotes into the area has led to an increase in gunshot deaths—juvenile red wolves can closely resemble coyotes in size and color, and many juveniles roamed the landscape during deer hunting season. The restrictions that followed, the negative reactions of the local population, the increase in the death toll and the forced reduction of successful management strategies all contributed to the fall of the red wolf population. (Read more: How to save the red wolf from extinction – for the second time.)

Three of the 10 red wolves released this year were shot, the leading cause of death among red wolves. These incidents are currently being investigated by law enforcement. There have been no prosecutions for poaching red wolves in over 20 years, despite hundreds of shootings. (Red wolves are federally protected animals and killing one could result in hefty fines.) The reasons for this are complex and frustrating to some conservationists who believe tougher law enforcement could deter poachers and help the species return.

At least two died of suspected collisions with vehicles and another of unknown causes. Three others were returned to captivity after behaving in a way that led to ‘doubts about their potential for survival in the wild’, including ‘in close proximity to people and development…despite repeated deterrence efforts’ .

The Final Wolf’s whereabouts are unknown, as his GPS tracking collar no longer works and it is feared he is dead.

Crawl forward

“Although the release of captive red wolves over the past two years has not had the level of success we seek, positive steps towards increasing the wild population have been taken through management actions,” says Fish and Wildlife Service biologist Joe Madison. which manages the Red Wolves in North Carolina, in an emailed statement. “These serve as building blocks as we incorporate lessons learned and work towards actions that will increase the likelihood of success and increase the number of breeding pairs of red wolves in the population.”

Mossotti agrees. The red wolf program, she said, was the first such reintroduction of a large carnivore that had gone extinct in the wild.

“Even though it was difficult at first, the wolves eventually did what they had to do: they stayed away from people, they hunted, they had puppies and raised families in packs, and the population has increased,” says Mossotti. (Related: These rare wolves are unique species. Here’s why it matters.)

The fact that this has happened before, in the face of a myriad of challenges, suggests it may happen again – something to note as the recovery program essentially resumes, with so few wild wolves remaining in the landscape that there is no We have no choice but to reintroduce born-born animals into captivity to replenish the population.

Advocates call it a chance to “reset” and rectify past mistakes, while critics say the small numbers of red wolves currently found in the landscape, whatever the complex reasons for their precipitous decline, including the The cessation of successful puppy breeding and neutering practices of coyotes — proves that their recovery is unlikely to occur using current techniques.

Motivated perhaps by recent court rulings as well as a renewed spirit of collaboration with state and non-governmental agencies, the Fish and Wildlife Service has been working to improve public awareness in the recovery area since the lifting of restrictions. pandemic restrictions – re-committing to protecting the species in consultation with the surrounding community.

These initiatives include the “Prey for the Pack” incentive program, which helps people complete habitat improvement projects “that benefit the landowner and wildlife”; a red wolf hotline; and public information meetings. Mobile traffic signs placed in areas where wolves are known to be active encourage drivers to slow down and also increase general awareness of red wolves, which even some locals say they didn’t know existed here.

A new red wolf recovery team, formed in 2021, includes scientists, federal and state agencies, tribal representatives, local landowners, zoos and nature centers and NGOs, in hopes that the The inclusion of stakeholders from more diverse backgrounds will lead to better discussions and insights into how humans and red wolves can co-exist.

Wes Seegars, longtime North Carolina state wildlife resources commissioner, who owns a farm and hunting land in the red wolf recovery area, is a member of the recovery team and he sees the influx of coyotes into the area as perhaps the largest wolf. obstacle.

“To only have purebred red wolves in the landscape, no matter how much money you invest, I think it’s a physical impossibility at this point,” he says, given the thousands of coyotes in the region, and the fact that red wolves hybridize with them when they lack other mates.

As the team approaches the February 2023 deadline for updating the red wolf recovery plan last revised in 1990, they have just released a draft plan for public comment. Two areas are of particular strategic importance: first, finding additional reintroduction sites within the historic range of red wolves to expand the species’ distribution. Second, to maintain long-term genetic diversity through the 240 red wolves living in captivity. Substantial red wolf DNA has also been found in hybrid coyotes in Texas, a potential source of genetic restoration.

The ongoing saga of the red wolf – its dramatic return from extinction, its spiraling return to the brink, and its continuing struggle for survival – illustrates not only the complex relationships humans have with large predators, but also the difficult work of conservation. In this Anthropocene era of extinctions, hopefully it will one day be told as a success story, rather than the story of another species wiped off the face of the earth.

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