for National Geographic News
Red wolves are making a comeback. A recovery program has taken the species from extinction in the wild to a restored population of more than 100 in northeastern North Carolina. But while conservationists consider the program a success, many challenges still lie ahead for the species that once ranged across much of the southeastern United States.
"The red wolf is the first effort to restore a predator in the wild after it was officially declared extinct in the wild," said Bud Fazio, team leader of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Red Wolf Recovery Program.
While little is known about historic red wolf numbers, these canids once ranged across the southeast from Florida to possibly as far north as New England and west to Texas. As the country started to be settled by Europeans, hunting and habitat loss chipped away at the wolves. In North Carolina, court records tally bounties paid to wolf hunters from 1768 to 1789.
By 1970 the red wolf population had dwindled to less than 100 animals roaming a small section of coastal Texas and Louisiana. "They darn near disappeared before we knew anything about them," said Fazio.
A decade later, the Fish and Wildlife Service rounded up the last remaining wild red wolves in the world. Researchers started a captive breeding program with 14 of the survivors. Four pairs of wolves were returned to the wild in the Alligator National Wildlife Refuge in North Carolina in 1987.
Red Wolf Redux
Now, about 100 red wolves roam free in northeastern North Carolina. FWS follows the progress of the reintroduced wolves with radio collars.
"This is a unique, highly endangered predator, and it's something that needs our help," Fazio said. "It's part of the heritage of the southeast."
One of the major concerns of a predator reintroduction program like this one is whether or not the predator will be able to hunt when it returns to the wildand these wolves are doing that, said Nancy Weiss, western director of species conservation for Defenders of Wildlife, a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group dedicated to the protection of native wild animals and plants in their natural communities. "They're mating, they're able to hunt, they're reproducing," she said, which points to the program's success.
"We've come a long way in 15 years," said Shauna Baron, outreach biologist for the recovery program. "The wild recovery effort started with only a captive-born stock to work with, and we now have over 100 wild-born wolves roaming throughout 1.5 million acres."
The FWS recovery team has started bumping up the wolf numbers by introducing island-bred wolves to the wild population. Two island breeding programsone on Bulls Island off the coast of South Carolina, the other on Florida's St. Vincent Islandprovide a place for parents to raise pups in a natural setting, softening the transition between captive breeding and reintroduction. "They train in the wild," said Baron. "It's like wolf boot camp."
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