Wild red wolves hanging on but more cooperation needed to save the species

Ann Cameron Siegal

THE WASHINGTON POST – While photographing bears in eastern North Carolina, I accidentally became a citizen scientist. A beautiful red wolf crossed a field in the distance, and I snapped a photo before it disappeared into tall grass.

Showing it to officials with the United States (US) Fish and Wildlife Service, I learned that this red wolf was one of only 20 estimated to be living in the wild. Eight of them have radio collars used to track animal movement for research. This female wolf’s whereabouts were unknown, because its collar had stopped working in 2019.

My photo helped wildlife officials rediscover a missing link in their decades-long effort to try to save this species.

The red wolf population, once plentiful throughout the Southeastern US, declined rapidly through the early 1900s. Fears of the mythical “big bad wolf” portrayed in fairy tales and movies had led to lawful killing of the animals.

Listed by the federal government as an endangered species in 1967, red wolves were declared extinct in the wild in 1980.

Red wolves are hard to find in the wild, but they can also be seen at 40 zoos and wildlife centres across the United States that are part of the species survival programme. PHOTO: THE WASHINGTON POST

The shy, mild-mannered red wolf is smaller than the gray wolf of the West, but larger than a coyote. It prefers to avoid people. As an apex predator – one at the top of the “food chain” – it feeds on deer, raccoons, rabbits and rodents. Apex predators keep the ecosystem in check. Without them, their prey populations would soar, decreasing availability of plants and animals down the food chain.

A captive-breeding programme was started in the 1970s with 14 wolves captured from the wild. In 1987, four pairs were released into North Carolina’s Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge, and the next year the first red wolf pups were born there. By 2006, the wild population in North Carolina was more than 130 red wolves.

This success story was short-lived, however. Many red wolves lost their lives through run-ins with cars or when they were shot by people who mistook them for coyotes.

Reversing rapidly declining red wolf numbers is complicated.

Stakeholders – including farmers, landowners, hunters, naturalists and wildlife management officials – often disagree on how or whether to sustain the wild wolf population.

Sometimes government policies change, and conflicting ideas lead to legal challenges. Efforts to compromise stall.

Communication among stakeholders is key.

“We know that there is little tolerance for top predators, so we need to increase understanding of that role,” said Executive Director Kim Wheeler at the Red Wolf Coalition, an educational advocacy group in Columbia, North Carolina.

Red wolves can travel 20 miles a day for food, so efforts to protect them require better partnerships between the government and private landowners, Fish and Wildlife Service biologist Joe Madison said.

“Red wolves don’t just stay on refuge property,” he said. “A healthy population requires a much larger land base than the refuge lands in eastern (North Carolina) can provide.”