For World's Only Wild Red Wolves, a Fateful Decision

The controversial wolves have been reintroduced to North Carolina for 28 years, but now the state wants them removed.

For Kim Wheeler, it’s “all about the howl.”

She loves hearing the haunting sounds of wild wolves across eastern North Carolina, sounds that had vanished from the region for decades but have returned to the region thanks to a 28-year federal red wolf reintroduction effort.

“That voice was silenced," says Wheeler, president of the nonprofit Red Wolf Coalition in Columbia, North Carolina, "until early conservation pioneers recognized that the red wolf was in trouble.”

Today, an estimated 75 to 100 red wolves roam across eastern North Carolina—the world's only wild population of red wolves. The animals have helped restore natural balance to the area, wolf advocates say, by picking off sick and weak prey, from deer to rabbits.

But the red wolf may be in trouble again. North Carolina's Wildlife Resources Commission has asked the federal government to end its reintroduction program and to remove the wolves from private land, arguing that the program has been a failure and that the wolves have damaged private land. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is considering the state’s petition and is expected to rule this month on whether to keep the program, change it, or recall the animals into captivity.

Gordon Myers, executive director of the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission, told a public hearing in Raleigh this month that the federal government has failed to establish a self-sustaining population of red wolves and that the animals are too hard to contain on public lands.

The high-stakes battle over North America's smallest wolf is a microcosm of the broader anxiety over the growing movement to reintroduce predators across the continent, which often pits conservationists and scientists against hunters and fearful landowners. (Learn more about the “wolf wars.”)

Dan Glover, a North Carolina hunter, told officials at the state commission’s hearing that he opposes the federal program’s restrictions on hunting the wolves, which have no natural predators in the state. “They're smart, crafty animals,” he said. “They have the advantage to start with, and you put these restrictions on [hunting them and] they gonna run rampant."

Jett Ferebee, another hunter who has campaigned for an end to the reintroduction program, told local media that red wolves have “ruined” his land by preying on the deer, rabbits, and turkeys he likes to hunt there.

Ferebee said that efforts by wildlife officials to scare red wolves off his land with air horns have failed, as have trap-and-release programs. The wolves continue making dens in his tractor shelter. A camera trap he set up sometimes records five or six of the reddish-brown animals in a single night, said Ferebee, who declined interview requests.

“It used to be cool to hear a wolf howl,” Ferebee told the Raleigh News & Observer. Now, he says, it's become “too much of a good thing.”

Red Wolves or Coyotes?

Red wolves once ranged across the southeastern U.S. but were nearly wiped out by 1900, thanks to widespread hunting and loss of habitat. Small numbers hung on until they were declared extinct in the wild in 1980.

Seven years later, the federal government started releasing captive-bred red wolves on North Carolina’s Albemarle Peninsula. The goal: 220 red wolves in the state, after breeding packs had a chance to establish themselves. (Read about the epic journey of the “Grand Canyon wolf.”)

But problems arose on the way to that goal, as coyotes have expanded into eastern North Carolina, interbreeding with the wolves to create hybrids that locals call super-coyotes.

Wildlife managers have tried to prevent the interbreeding by trapping, moving, and sterilizing coyotes, but North Carolina's Wildlife Resources Commission says the attempts have been in vain. As a result, the agency has asked the federal Fish and Wildlife Service to designate all wild dogs other than foxes on the Albemarle Peninsula as coyotes or coyote-hybrids and to declare the red wolf extinct in the wild in the state.

Commission officials declined interview requests, but documents make clear that they want the federal agency to remove all red wolves from private land, and to state that any wolves that stray from federal wildlife refuges could be legally hunted as coyotes.

In fact, the biological identity of the red wolf (Canis rufus) has long been controversial. The classic scientific view holds that the red wolf is a distinct species that generally falls between a gray wolf and a coyote in size, with adults measuring up to 63 inches (160 centimeters) in length and weighing 40 to 90 pounds (18 to 40 kilograms).

In practice, even experts can have trouble distinguishing an individual red wolf from a coyote, especially because they tend to have similar tawny coat patterns. That has led some scientists to question whether the animal is really a subspecies of coyote.

A review of the scientific literature in 2012 by the Fish and Wildlife Service concluded that red wolves do remain a distinct species from coyotes. Despite the debate, the red wolf remains a federally protected species in the law and the Fish and Wildlife Service remains committed to its survival, says Tom MacKenzie, a spokesperson for the agency’s Southeast Region.

For Wheeler, the controversy over how pure the wild red wolves are is overblown. “What is 100 percent pure?” she asks. “I don’t know that anything is.”

Ruining Private Land?

The first red wolves released in North Carolina were let loose in a string of federal wildlife refuges in the eastern part of the state. But the program eventually expanded to include vast swaths of private land in five counties, with 64 red wolves released on private property.

Most landowners have been thrilled to participate in the program, MacKenzie says, because they feel that they are giving back to nature and restoring their state’s heritage. But in response to criticism from some property owners, the federal government stopped releasing wolves on private land last year.

Despite complaints from some hunters that red wolves have decreased the availability of prey on private hunting grounds, data maintained by the North Carolina Wildlife Commission show that deer and turkey have not declined overall in the five counties.

Wheeler says that the deer, turkeys, and other prey species have changed their behavior in response to the return of their natural predators, making them harder for hunters to find.

“People say they used to see more deer standing out in the field,” she says. “But now they’re not going to wait to be taken; they hide in the brush.”

More people in North Carolina complain that the state has too many deer, she says. (Learn about the battle to restore grizzlies to the North Cascades.)

“Our view," says the Fish and Wildlife Service's MacKenzie, "is that the introduction of a predator has had positive benefits on species in the area by reducing numbers of animals with disease or those that are weak and not able to survive.”

The big question is whether people see predators as competition for land and prey or as an integral part of the landscape. “Ultimately it's just perspective," Wheeler says. "Either people like wolves or they don't, just like Brussels sprouts.”

It's a drama that's playing out around the country, as wolves reintroduced to Yellowstone spill outside the park, as the fate of the Mexican wolf continues to hang in the balance in the Southwest, and as many communities confront rising bear populations. (Learn about the role of “kid cages.”)

Even red wolves have seen previous reintroduction controversies. An effort in the late 1990s to reintroduce the animals to the Great Smoky Mountains was halted after the animals angered local farmers by straying out of the park.

It’s not exactly clear what will happen to North Carolina's red wolves if the federal government approves the state's request to end the program.

At the hearing, Myers said the wolf population will not be sustainable without the use of private land. About a hundred of the animals live in captivity across the country, so the species will go on.

But if the state gets its way, the haunting howls of wild wolves may again become sounds of the past.

Follow Brian Clark Howard on Twitter and Google+.

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