The Red Wolf experience left a lasting legacy for Smokies

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An unsuccessful attempt to reintroduce red wolves to the Great Smoky Mountains has left a lasting legacy in the park and raised awareness of critically endangered species.

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. – If you count all the red wolves in the world, you’ll find almost four percent of the entire population in a fenced-in enclosure at the Knoxville Zoo.

“Unfortunately, the outlook is pretty bleak at this point. We only have about 25 in the wild at the moment. There are about 250 in managed care and we have 10 at the Knoxville Zoo. Zoos keep this population alive, ”said Kelly Cox, assistant director of animal care at the Knoxville Zoo.

The critically endangered species is known as the “American wolf” because it is the only species that lived entirely within the borders of the United States without expanding into Canada or Mexico. .

“Most people don’t know that there has ever been a red wolf in the landscape. We’ve made a habitat for them here that’s out of the way. It’s done by design because red wolves are not. not those vicious wolves that we portray them. They are very secretive and very shy. So it was imperative to give them a place to hide and blend in with their natural surroundings, “Cox said.

One of the main reasons the red wolves have been nearly eradicated is that governments have put a price on the heads of animals. For decades, bounties have been paid to kill a predator that has harmed farms and made farmers look red.

The US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) listed the red wolf on its endangered species list in 1967. In 1980, it took the drastic step of capturing all remaining red wolves in the wild in Texas and Louisiana in order to breed them in captivity.

When the number of red wolves was boosted through captive breeding, the first family was released into the wild in 1987 along the North Carolina coast.

In 1991, the program to save the red wolves found another place to try and let them roam free.

Retired wildlife biologist Kim Delozier has helped reintroduce several species to Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

“The Fish and Wildlife Service actually contacted us to use the Smokies as a place to try and restore the red wolves. It was introducing a top predator into the ecosystem,” Delozier said.

The first family of red wolves emerged from a large cage and into the wilderness of the Great Smoky Mountains in November 1991. Two other families were released in 1992 at Cades Cove and Tremont.

Not everyone celebrated the return of a renowned hunter.

“A lot of people were skeptical of bringing in wolves. I think the farmers were worried and they should have been. It was amazing how wolves operated. There would be a cow with a new calf- born, and one of the wolves would come and start fighting the cow. The other wolf was circling behind and grabbing the calf and running away with it. So they’re very smart, “Delozier said.

For all the deer and other prey inside the national park, it was not enough to feed wolf families. Many animals ventured out of the park in search of food.

“A lot of these animals left the park and came out and caused problems,” Delozier said.

A woman traveled more than 40 miles outside of the national park and was found in the Holston Hills neighborhood of North Knoxville.

“When I see a snake I take a shovel and let it have it. I don’t know what I would do with a wolf,” one Holston Hills resident joked in 1996.

“When you talk about large mammals like wolves, elk and bears, this park is not big enough to have an isolated and self-sustaining population just inside the park. When they leave the park, there are often conflicts with landowners, ”said Bill Stiver, wildlife biologist in charge of GSMNP.

Several wolves that left the park were killed or died of unknown causes. One of them was poisoned while drinking antifreeze under a vehicle in Blount County.

The real struggle of life and death was not based on keeping the animals within the boundaries of the park. It was the inability to keep new litters alive.

MORTALITY OF PUPPIES AND COYOTES

About 40 Cubs were born in the wild in the Great Smoky Mountains. None of them survived.

“The wolves would mate. They would have young. The young would die from the parvo virus. When you don’t have a reproduction, you can’t have a population,” Stiver said.

The red wolf fought against disease and famine. Its reintroduction also coincided with the arrival of a crafty competitor.

“Coyotes settled in the park in the early to mid-1980s. When they first introduced red wolves, the coyote population was relatively small,” said Delozier.

But coyotes continued to thrive and compete directly with red wolves for food. The coyote also threatened to contaminate the endangered gene pool.

“Because there were few red wolves, there was some hybridization. They crossed with coyotes. And, of course, it will spell the end of the red wolf if they hybridize,” he said. declared Delozier.

In 1998, the Fish and Wildlife Service announced that it would end the red wolf experiment in the Great Smoky Mountains. All but one of the wolves released into the park with radio collars have been recaptured.

The Red Wolf experiment in the Smokies failed. But the park has learned lessons that have had a lasting impact. Specifically, the experience with the red wolves helped park leaders know how to mobilize the public for the elk reintroduction in 2001.

“I think what we learned from the red wolf was at least the process. With the red wolves there were public meetings where people would come out to voice their objections to unrelated things the government was doing. meetings and hope people show up. We met groups directly and informed them of our plan, ”said Delozier.

“We can’t handle the wildlife in a bottle inside the national park. The most important thing I’ve learned is how important it is to work with our neighbors,” Stiver said.

There is another enduring legacy of the Red Wolf program in the Smokies. Some people often claim to see coyotes that look a lot like red wolves.

“Every year people call me and think they’ve seen a red wolf. We know that red wolves and coyotes mated. Could there be wolf genes there? It’s possible, but probably. not after 20 years, ”Stiver said.

“People see coyotes that have a reddish tint or a reddish color. These probably aren’t from persistent red wolf genes. They probably come from wild dogs breeding with coyotes. When these coyotes breeding with dogs wild, they can be a solid black, solid red, gray and a mix, ”Delozier said.

Even if there are persistent genes, they are diluted with each generation and practically disappear.

The real effort to preserve the genetics of red wolves lies in about 25 wild red wolves in eastern North Carolina, as well as wolves managed at facilities like the Knoxville Zoo.

Cox said residents of eastern Tennessee are often excited about red wolves.

“I think through Project Smokies he brought knowledge of red wolves here and an appreciation of red wolves maybe more than other places,” Cox said. “Our red wolf puppy born in 2016 was just a superstar.”

Another litter of eight healthy puppies was born at the zoo in 2018. Some will likely move to other zoos to breed and keep struggling species alive, and possibly help return the call of the red wolf to the wild. .

“I think that’s the most important thing people know. There are red wolves and they need your help. Because once they’re gone, it’s the end. It’s a sad day for all of us, ”Cox said.

Related: June 2018 – Update! 8 very rare red wolf puppies at the Knoxville Zoo that are doing well!

Related: June 2016 – Knoxville Zoo Names Red Wolf Pup


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