Red Wolves Back From Extinction In U.S. Wild

Cameron Walker
for National Geographic News
January 31, 2003
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 wild—and 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 programs—one on Bulls Island off the coast of South Carolina, the other on Florida's St. Vincent Island—provide 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."

FWS biologists are augmenting the wild population with 18-month-old animals bred on one of the islands. When the islanders arrive, the team tries to play matchmaker, setting up the new wolves with potential mates in the wild population. Another promising breakthrough for boosting red wolf recovery came in 2002, when the team placed pups born in captivity with a wild litter. The parents accepted these outsiders, and in December the pups were spotted with their littermates, all in excellent health, said Baron.

"We're very pleased about that," said Fazio. The ability to place young pups as well as older wolves in the wild will inject the population with new genes and increase the numbers of wild wolves. Both these techniques will enhance survival, he said.

Bumpy Road to Recovery

As well as successes, there have been several setbacks along the way. In the early 1990s, the team tried to start a second breeding population in the Great Smoky Mountains. But pups began to pick up diseases normally seen in domestic dogs, and adult wolves started migrating away from protected areas. The FWS decided to pull the program in 1998.

Another challenge has been public perception of wolf recovery. "Initially, people would hear the word 'wolf' and worry about all kinds of horrible things happening," said Fazio.

In 1995 Cornell economist William Rosen conducted a survey of the eight-state region around the recovery area. Overall, support for wolf recovery hovered around 70 percent, Rosen said.

"Over the past 15 years, the attitude has softened a bit," said Fazio, "but there are still some people who don't support the reintroduction."

The most recent twist for the wolf program has been the appearance of the eastern coyote in the Alligator National Wildlife Refuge. When red wolves were first reintroduced, there were no coyotes in the preserve—they first showed up in the area in the mid-1990s.

Coyotes threaten the success of the red wolf recovery program because they could interbreed with the wolves, said L. David Mech, senior research scientist for the U.S. Geologic Survey and founder of the International Wolf Center, Ely, Minnesota. The center advances the survival of wolf populations by teaching about wolves, their relationship to wild lands, and the role of humans in their future.

If red wolves and coyotes began to interbreed extensively, traits unique to red wolves could be diluted and could eventually vanish.

The Fish and Wildlife Service has started an intensive management program to keep the coyotes at bay. The research team, which has five permanent members, follows wolves and coyotes using their tracks, scat, and traps that don't injure the captured animal. When a coyote or wolf-coyote hybrid is caught, the team sterilizes it so it can't breed with the wolves and then returns it to the reintroduction area with a tracking collar.

It's thought that as the wolf population builds, they'll do more of the work themselves at keeping coyotes out, said Fazio.

The coyote's appearance is another aspect of the program where public sentiment may come into play, said Weiss of Defenders of Wildlife. Without understanding the detrimental effects of the coyote, people might be concerned about the recovery program's attempts to separate the two species.

"The success of any wolf recovery program hinges so much on public understanding and public awareness," said Weiss.

According to Fazio, the program's past victories are a direct result of the innovative crew working to restore wolves. "Other folks in the canid world look to this staff for advice and information." The Mexican gray wolf recovery program in Arizona has modeled some of its strategies on red wolves' restoration, for example.

For now, the FWS team plans to concentrate on the wolves restored in North Carolina before attempting another spot for reintroduction.

"We want to learn more about the wolves' natural history, and how to manage them with coyotes," said Fazio. "There's been a tremendous amount of success, especially in the last three years, but there's still a long way to go."

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