Bringing Back Red Wolves

This article originally appeared in Voice of the Foothills (Morganton, NC).

September 2002 — Nearly the entire North American continent was once home to wolves; they were the most widely distributed land mammal on earth.  Now, however, wild wolves are found only in Alaska, Canada, a few American states bordering Canada, and here in North Carolina.

North Carolina’s current wild wolf population is essentially a result of humans’ attempt to atone for past sins.  Over the course of two centuries—ever since settlers started carving out parcels of land for outposts, forts, towns, and cities—red wolves, our local species, were pushed from their home.   Red wolves once roamed a vast territory expanding from Texas to Florida and possibly even as far as Maine.  But wolves were shot, trapped and poisoned. Their habitats were decimated.  Their food supply dwindled.  By the mid-1970s only a handful clung to the Texas coast near the Louisiana state line.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recognized the red wolves’ miserable predicament.  It was almost too late to help, though.  To save the species, 400 from the Texas population were captured over a six year period.  Red wolves had been breeding with coyotes, though, and after tests were done, it was discovered that only 17 out of the 400 were genetically pure red wolves.  The once free-roaming animal had been reduced to a handful of sick, hungry survivors.  Red wolves were officially declared extinct in the wild in 1980.

Under the mandate of the Endangered Species Act of 1973, the USFWS was charged with developing a plan to reintroduce red wolves into the wild to prevent complete extinction of the species and to restore the ecosystem.  The 17 survivors became the founders of a new red wolf population through a captive-breeding program established at the Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium in Tacoma, Washington.  Today 30 zoos and nature centers across the country host 175 red wolves for the breeding program, and 100 red wolves live in the wild on one and one half million acres in eastern North Carolina.

Guy & Angel

The Western Carolina Nature Center in Asheville is one of the facilities that volunteered its space and services to the breeding program effort.  A red wolf habitat was built at the nature center 15 years ago and has been home to a male red wolf for most of that time.  He doesn’t have an official name, according to Bob Fay, nature center animal curator, but he is often referred to as Guy.  Guy has been a successful stud.  Different female wolves are introduced periodically, and so far Guy has fathered about four litters that have survived into maturity.  A new female wolf called Angel moved into the facility towards the end of the last mating season, but Fay is not as confident that Guy will be successful this time around.  “He’s about 13 or 14 years old now,” he said.  “That’s getting pretty old for a wolf.”

The nature center has taken on more responsibility for the red wolves’ benefit than just breeding, though.  Education, preservation and appreciation are key words Fay uses.  “Seeing these animals on TV or in a magazine is not the same as seeing them up close in person,” he said.  There has been a common misconception that wolves are a danger to humans, which is something Fay is quick to counter.

“There has never been a record of a health wolf attacking a human,” he said.  “We are just not prey to them. It is possible  for wolves to coexist with humans and other animals. It’s not always perfect, but it can work.”

Many animals in the nature center are imprinted on humans and so can’t be released into the wild.  A six-month-old coyote lives in an enclosure next to Guy and Angel.  The little coyote had been illegally raised as a pet and once confiscated it had been given to the nature center.  It eagerly greets anyone entering its habitat just like a happy, go-lucky dog.  The red wolves were a direct contrast to this, though.  They immediately darted for the far side of their enclosure whenever anyone visits them.

Fay said the red wolves are purposely kept wild.  Despite Guy’s long stay at the nature center, he and all the females that have passed through belong to the USFWS.  The wolves are given minimum up close exposure to humans so that they can survive if they are ever chosen for release into the wild, and so that they can also train their puppies valuable survival skills.

Difficult Recovery

In the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge, in eastern North Carolina lives approximately 100 wild red wolves in about 20 packs or family units, according to Buddy Fazio, Team Leader of the Red Wolf Recovery Program for the USFWS.  Fazio is in charge of all aspects of the program from overseeing the staff and coordinating with scientists to supervising the captive breeding program and the wolves’ release into the wild.

When the Species Recovery Program was started, a panel of scientists recommended a recovery goal for the red wolves of 550 total consisting of three wild populations totaling 220 and 330 in captivity.  Fazio said that those goals can and may be revised after some future reviews.  However, it looks like there is still a lot of hard work and care to look forward to in the years to come.

The road to recovery has been difficult.  A second wild red wolf population attempt had failed in the Tennessee portion of the Great Smoky Mountain National Park near Cades Cove.  Fazio said the attempt had been a worthy experiment, but despite doing a significant amount of homework, the USFWS was still working off of limited information.  The red wolf population had diminished so long ago that there was too little known about the species.  “There are a lot of challenges,” he said.  “It was very much a learn as you do project.”

One reason for the Smoky Mountain failure was disease.  “The puppies born in the wild succumbed to domestic animal diseases they would not have had to deal with a century ago,” explained Fazio.  Wolves were also driven by hunger out of the areas they were expected to stay in.  “The prey base was not enough to sustain them throughout the year,” he said.  The red wolves migrated off of federal land into places where they were not planned to go.  The red wolves were recaptured and relocated and the Smoky Mountain release program was abandoned.

There are no current plans to try again in the Smoky Mountains, but the area had not been ruled out completely.  “We need to concentrate on the dynamics in eastern North Carolina,” said Fazio.  “We are focusing on that population and learning what it takes to manage it.  Once we have learned from its successes we can then determine other recovery plans.  This is the first ever attempt to re-establish carnivores in their native range, so this is a maximal challenge.”

The Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge population was not without its troubles, either.  The small number of red wolves that were initially released into the area weren’t enough to sustain breeding in the wild, and so the red wolves would sometimes breed with coyotes.  Coyotes from the west had filled in the natural void left by the red wolves as a top predator; this was another example of circumstances changing once the original balance had been disrupted.  Hybrid puppies were, of course, detrimental to the goal of building up a red wolf community.  To combat this problem, the red wolves would first be released on islands isolated from coyote encroachment.  The islands could not sustain a large population, but they would serve the important role of getting red wolves used to fending for themselves without competition.

Changing Attitudes

Legal concerns also cropped up.  Small groups of local residents were vocally against the possibility of red wolves prowling their land.  The red wolves’ current range extends through five counties and at least 35 percent of that area is privately owned.  “In some circumstances people felt the Endangered Species Act interfered with their businesses and cut into their profits,” said Fazio.  “People wanted the federal government to stay out of their back yards.  Others feared red wolves would eat their livestock or even their children.”

However, All wild red wolves are classified as experimental nonessential under the Endangered Species Act. This classification is intended to minimize effects on individual landowner rights or lawful activities, such as farming, logging, hunting, trapping, or livestock operations.  Also, a fund is available to reimburse residents who can show that red wolves attacked their livestock.

Fazio said that the fund is rarely used, though.  He’s known of only four incidences where people have blamed things like missing chickens or chewed-through crop fertilizer lines on red wolves.  Most cases, however, can be traced to foxes or coyotes rather than red wolves.  But, if a red wolf or other animal is causing problems, the USFWS will trap the troublesome animal and release it elsewhere.

Attitudes have changed over the years.  Fazio said that red wolves actually help the local economy through tourism.  Wolves and their characteristic howls are a popular attraction.  “Even though some people still don’t like the red wolves, they say, ‘It’s not affecting me, so it’s OK,’” he said.