8 red wolves released into wild provide hope for critically endangered species

A look at America’s most endangered wolf, and how this news is “a step in the right direction” for the species.

The world’s only wild population of red wolves just got eight more members. Four adult red wolves and four captive-born pups were released into a wildlife refuge in eastern North Carolina, raising hopes that this unique species can be pulled back from the brink of extinction—for the second time.

Red wolves are a critically endangered species, found nowhere else in the world but North Carolina, and their range includes two wildlife refuges and a patchwork of federal, state, and private lands. The total wild population is now estimated at around 20 to 25 animals, counting the eight animals just released.

The release of these eight red wolves was mandated by a court order. The Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC), on behalf of several conservation groups, sued the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in fall 2020 over its failure to release more red wolves into the wild. The SELC argued that the lack of action was a violation of the Endangered Species Act. In January, a U.S. District Court Judge ordered the service to prepare a revised plan for imminent releases.

Ron Sutherland of the Wildlands Network, an environmental group, calls the most recent releases “a great step in the right direction,” although his organization had advocated for even more wolves to be released. He hopes the Fish and Wildlife Service will “start standing up for their own program again [and] recommit to working on the ground with the people of North Carolina with the goal of rescuing this population of red wolves.”

“Our goal is to work together to establish an implementation plan... to reach jointly established recovery goals for the red wolf,” says John Tirpak, deputy assistant regional director of ecological services with the Fish and Wildlife Service.

Dedicated family 

The four red wolf pups, born at the Akron Zoo, were placed within the den of a wild female in early May in the Pocosin Lakes Wildlife Refuge, on the Albemarle-Pamlico peninsula in eastern North Carolina. This strategy, known as pup fostering, has been extremely successful for the species. It has a success rate near 100 percent, says Chris Lasher of the North Carolina Zoo in Asheboro, who is coordinator of the Red Wolf Species Survival Plan, a set of conservation measures designed to ensure the longevity and security of these animals as a species.

But it’s tricky work. The pups must be moved before they’re two weeks old, while their eyes are still closed, and handlers try to ensure they smell like their wild litter-mates, to help facilitate acceptance by their adoptive mother. In this case, the pups were flown to North Carolina from Akron, Ohio, requiring coordination and teamwork amongst zookeepers, government biologists, and other staff, including a volunteer pilot.

Joe Madison, director of the red wolf program in North Carolina for the Fish and Wildlife Service, reports that shortly after the foster pups were placed in the den, the wild wolf mother moved the whole litter to a new site, which is typical after any den disturbance. Scientists monitoring her movements with a tracking collar have found she continues to hang around the den, a good sign.

“All indications are that the captive-born pups have been successfully adopted,” Madison says.

Pup fostering works well for the species in part because “[they] are a very compassionate and dedicated family species,” Lasher says. “Mother red wolves are committed to raising a litter of puppies, no matter the size or makeup.” The process is useful because it helps to both increase red wolf numbers in the wild and enhances the genetic diversity of the population, by introducing new genes from captive red wolves.  

America’s wolf

Smaller than their cousins the gray wolves and slightly larger than coyotes, red wolves once roamed much of the Southeast—but widespread extermination campaigns, along with habitat loss, led to the decline of most apex predators in this country.

By 1980 red wolves were officially declared extinct in the wild. Shortly beforehand, a last few red wolves had been brought from the wild to Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium, in Tacoma, Washington, to be bred under human care in an effort to preserve the species. In 1987, four breeding pairs descended from those original 14 animals were released into the Alligator River Wildlife Refuge in eastern North Carolina as a first-of-its-kind experiment in “re-wilding.”

There were some initial challenges. “We spent a lot of time figuring out the technical aspects, how to release a predator on the landscape—things like acclimation pens,” notes Tirpak. But the population grew steadily. It peaked at about 120 in 2012, and between 2004 and 2014, stayed steady at around a hundred red wolves in several family packs.

Initially, red wolf reintroduction was largely seen as a success, “nothing short of a biological, political, and sociological miracle,” as author T. DeLene Beeland puts it in The Secret World of Red Wolves. It would serve as a model for the later reintroduction of gray wolves to Yellowstone and Idaho, as well as for other predator reintroductions worldwide.

But the fast-growing coyote population in North Carolina, combined with deteriorating relations with locals, and a shift in long successful management strategies, would eventually contribute to the wild population of red wolves going into freefall.

In the 1990s, a small but vocal group of hunters and landowners, led by a property developer named Jett Ferebee who owns several thousand acres abutting the Pocosin Lakes Refuge, began to fiercely contest the red wolf recovery program. On websites, airplane banners, and highway billboards, Ferebee billed it as a “scandal,” a federal overreach infringing on people’s property rights and costing taxpayers millions. The red wolves have also been accused of decimating local deer populations—although no evidence supports these claims.

The five counties in the red wolf recovery area are among the poorest in the state, with an economy reliant on hunting and fishing and other outdoor activities, which could include ecotourism. But there has been rising anti-government sentiment in the region. A 2014 court settlement outlawed night hunting of coyotes in an attempt to curb red wolf fatalities, further fueling opposition to the wolves. (Young red wolves can be difficult to tell apart from coyotes, and some people felt it was unfair that they couldn’t hunt coyotes without limitations.)

On online hunting forums, red wolves have been branded “hybrids” and “mutants,” which is inaccurate since zoos carefully breed the animals to maintain genetic diversity. Though red wolves can and sometimes do breed with coyotes, this typically happens when there aren’t enough red wolf mates on the landscape. For a time there were scholarly debates over red wolf taxonomy, but an authoritative National Academy of Sciences study in 2019 declared them a distinct species, Canis rufus, and worthy of federal protection. (Read more: These rare wolves are unique species. Here’s why that matters.)

In 2015 the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission passed resolutions that severely hindered the federal government’s efforts to maintain the population. The agency ceased fostering pups at this time, and also stopped sterilizing coyotes—an effective method for controlling their numbers.

Inundated by requests to remove wolves, the Fish and Wildlife Service also granted some permits to kill wolves on private property, though red wolves have only killed seven domestic animals over the course of 30 years, and the owners were compensated. After 2014, the population dropped from around 100 to about 20 at the end of 2020, Madison says.

Sierra Weaver, attorney with the SELC, says that until the Fish and Wildlife Service caved to pressure and changed their policies, “they had a very successful management plan.” Acknowledging the more recent impetus to improve relations with locals, she cites the need for more law enforcement. Despite numerous red wolves being killed by gunshots in the past decade, there have been no prosecutions of those responsible.

Reason for hope

Just as red wolf pup fostering requires extensive planning and coordination with partners, teamwork will be essential moving forward if red wolves are to regain their footing in the wild, says Lasher. Moving forward, Fish and Wildlife  hopes to improve outreach and increase tolerance for red wolves, including a just launched landowner incentive program, Madison says. “Prey for the Pack” will assist landowners with habitat improvements in exchange for allowing red wolves to live on their land.

“This is an exciting first step,” Ramona McGee, an attorney with the SELC, says of the recent releases. “But more needs to be done [since] the population is still so small.” In 2019 and 2020, no litters were born in the wild. “It’s essential to ensure and facilitate [this] reproduction,” McGee adds.

Per the court order, the service will provide regular updates on its work and plans for future releases. This summer it will participate in the Red Wolf Species Survival Plan meeting, which brings together leaders from over 40 facilities that protect and breed the approximately 250 red wolves currently under human care.

“We look forward to continuing these efforts,” says Madison, “and to working cooperatively with local communities to garner support for our work and the survival of this remarkable species.”

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