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 preservethey 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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