The Red Wolf fought back on the brink of extinction, and now he’s adopting puppies to survive

Red wolves were one of the first European carnivores encountered in North America. Unfortunately, this meant that the Red Wolves were also one of the first to be exterminated. Fueled by fear and superstition, government-backed eradication campaigns have reduced the red wolves to only a hundred individuals in the middle of the 20th century.

In the 1970s, the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) removed the last red wolves from eastern Texas and western Louisiana in an attempt to save them in captivity. Declared extinct in the wild in 1980, the USFWS has since focused its conservation efforts on creating a captive population from which restore red wolves to their historic range in the future.

Now, despite recovering a wild population, the USFWS Red Wolf Recovery Program is under review and could face closure.

Capture red wolves to save them

Removing red wolves from the wild was unprecedented and marked the first time that a species had been deliberately removed from its natural environment to save it from extinction. The long-term goal of getting them back into the wild began with a small captive population and the Red wolf species survival plan who defined a strategy to manage red wolf populations, establish appropriate capture and containment techniques, coordinate research and ultimately reintroduce captive-born red wolves into the wild.

One of the issues was the red wolf‘s close relationship with the coyote: as red wolf populations plummeted, coyotes from the western and central states moved into the wolf’s historic range, eventually. colonize it entirely. The ranges of the two species did not historically overlap, but once in contact they can cross, which means that the number of declining red wolves was further reduced and assimilated into the coyote population via hybridization.

Starting with just 14 red wolves as founders, the captive population grew to around 60 after five years, during which time the USFWS used several islands as reserves where some red wolves could be kept in semi-wild conditions and offer a training opportunity for USFWS biologists. In 1987, the USFWS released four pairs of captive-born red wolves on Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge in North Carolina. Since then, the USFWS has established a wild population of around 80 individuals today – the first successful reintroduction of its kind.

Red Wolves: attempt to return.
B. Crawford / USFWS, CC BY-SA

Returning Red Wolves to the Wild

The conservation and management of threatened carnivores is difficult, but the restoration of wolves in the eastern United States is unprecedented because the effort requires tackling human impacts, hybridization with coyotes and inbreeding common to small threatened populations. The high number of wolves killed by humans exacerbates inbreeding problems, which reduces the physical form of wolves by decreasing reproduction rates and increasing susceptibility to environmental changes and disease. Hybridization increases as the decrease in numbers allows coyotes to colonize territories of wolves killed by humans, and when a red wolf cannot locate a red wolf mate, it accepts a coyote and produces hybrids. They can even do it to avoid inbreeding.

Red wolves cling to existence a few thousand miles from the Southeastern United States.
B. Bartel / USFWS, CC BY-SA

To combat hybridization, the USFWS has developed a capture and release program where coyotes are sterilized. These sterile coyotes then act as territorial reserved spaces; Equipped with radio collars and monitored by biologists from the USFWS, they defend their territory against fertile coyotes until red wolves can settle and occupy these areas. This technique reduces coyote densities by suppressing reproduction, while preventing hybrids in case the sterile coyote finds a red wolf mate.

Fortunately, red wolves will easily adopt young and raise them as their own, so small red wolves born in captivity are placed in wild litters in order to increase the genetic diversity of the wild population. This technique not only decreases the kinship of neighboring wolves and increases the wild population, but it increases the survival of animals born in captivity by allowing them to be raised by packs of wild red wolves.

While the recovery of the species has benefited greatly from these techniques, the best solution to these problems is simply to increase the size of the population. Currently, about 80 red wolves in 15 packs hold territories over 6,500 km2 of public and private land. Reducing the number of human deaths and increasing the red wolf population is essential. Despite great progress in restoring red wolves to their former range, a lot of work remains to be done, and the end of the USFWS red wolf recovery program could see the end of the red wolf.


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