The quest to save the world’s rarest canine faces setbacks

Nine of 10 red wolves released this year are dead or back in captivity. But many are pressing forward to save this endangered species.

In early 2022, a total of 10 red wolves were released from captivity into wildlife refuges in eastern North Carolina, part of a court-mandated acceleration of the Fish and Wildlife Service’s long-standing recovery program aimed at restoring these critically endangered animals. It took place after months of careful planning and collaboration between zoos, wildlife sanctuaries, and biologists managing red wolf recovery.

In all, three breeding pairs and a family pack of five red wolves were released into the Alligator River and Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuges, after first spending weeks in secluded acclimation pens in the area. One of the pairs was a wild female placed with a captive-born male in hopes they might bond as mates. The releases nearly doubled the number of known red wolves on the landscape to around 20.

Their first tentative steps into the wild were captured on trail cameras for the world to see—and were hailed by conservation groups as a “new start” for the beleaguered Red Wolf Recovery Program, which after decades of steady growth had experienced a decline in recent years.

A litter of six red wolf pups, born in the Alligator River Refuge soon after—the first born in the wild in three years—offered another sign of hope. The pups appear to be growing and thriving, and have been spotted frolicking in the refuge’s forests and fields and howling alongside their parents.

But trying to recover a species from the brink of extinction is not without hardship, as those involved in the process know too well—indeed, dramatic highs and lows have marked the past decade as “America’s wolf” struggles to regain a foothold in a region where it once roamed free. Of the 10 captive-born wolves released this year, six are dead, and three have been returned to captivity—an unfortunate blow to the program.

It’s a reminder that “conservation is incredibly challenging,” says Regina Mossotti, who helps lead the Association of Zoos and Aquariums red wolf conservation program.

Rough road to recovery 

September 13 marked the 35th anniversary of the initial reintroduction of red wolves, in which eight captive-born canids were released into North Carolina as a first-of-its-kind experiment in the “rewilding” of a native predator officially declared extinct. After a bumpy start, as field biologists learned more about the red wolves’ behavior in the wild and developed innovative strategies for managing their recovery, the population grew, peaking in 2012 at over 100 animals in numerous packs and remaining steady for several more years.

But the encroachment of coyotes in the region led to increasing gunshot deaths—juvenile red wolves can closely resemble coyotes in size and coloring, and numerous juveniles roamed the landscape during deer hunting season. Ensuing restrictions, resulting backlash from locals, a rising death toll, and forced scaling back of successful management strategies all contributed to the red wolf population plummeting. (Learn more: How to save the red wolf from going extinct—for a second time.)

Three of the 10 red wolves released this year were killed by gunshots—the leading cause of death for red wolves. These incidents are currently being investigated by law enforcement. There have been no prosecutions for red wolf poaching in over 20 years, despite hundreds of shootings. (Red wolves are federally protected animals and killing one could be punishable by steep fines.)  The reasons for this are complex, and frustrating for some conservationists who believe more robust law enforcement could deter poachers and help the species come back.  

At least two died of suspected vehicle strikes, and another from unknown causes. Three others were returned to captivity after behaving in a way that led to “doubts about their potential to survive in the wild” including “close proximity to people and development…despite repeated efforts to deter.”

The final wolf’s whereabouts are unknown, as its GPS tracking collar is no longer functioning, and is feared dead.

Crawling forward

“While the release of captive red wolves over the past couple of years has not had the level of success we are striving for, positive steps toward increasing the wild population have occurred through management actions,” says Joe Madison, the Fish and Wildlife Service biologist who manages red wolves in North Carolina, in an emailed statement. “These serve as building blocks as we incorporate lessons learned and work toward actions that will increase the likelihood of success and increase the number of red wolf breeding pairs in the population.”

Mossotti agrees. The red wolf program, she says, was the first reintroduction of its kind, of a large carnivore that had become extinct in the wild.

“Even though it was challenging at first, the wolves eventually did what they needed to: They stayed away from people, they hunted, they had pups and raised families in family packs, and the population grew,” Mossotti says. (Related: These rare wolves are unique species. Here’s why that matters.)

The fact that this happened before, in the face of myriad challenges, suggests it can happen again—something to note as the recovery program in essence starts over, with so few wild wolves remaining on the landscape that it has no choice but to reintroduce captive-born animals to rebuild the population.

Advocates call this a chance to “re-set” and rectify past mistakes, while critics claim the small number of red wolves currently found on the landscape—regardless of the complex reasons for their precipitous decline, including the halting of successful pup-fostering and coyote sterilization practices—proves that their recovery is unlikely to happen using current techniques.

Motivated perhaps by recent court rulings as well as a renewed spirit of collaboration with state and non-governmental agencies, the Fish and Wildlife Service is working to improve public outreach in the recovery area since pandemic restrictions lifted—recommitting to protecting the species in consultation with the surrounding community.

Such initiatives include the “Prey for the Pack” incentive program, which assists people with habitat improvement projects “that benefit the landowner and wildlife”; a red wolf hotline; and public informational meetings. Moveable traffic signs placed in areas where the wolves are known to be active encourage drivers to slow down, and also increase general awareness of the red wolves, which even some locals say they didn’t know existed here.

A new Red Wolf Recovery Team, formed in 2021, includes scientists, federal and state agencies, Tribal representatives, local landowners, zoos and nature centers, and NGOs, in hopes that including stakeholders from more diverse backgrounds will lead to better discussions and ideas about how humans and red wolves can coexist.

Wes Seegars, longtime Wildlife Resources Commissioner for the State of North Carolina who owns a farm and hunting lands in the red wolf recovery area, is a member of the Recovery Team, and he sees the influx of coyotes to the region as perhaps the wolf’s greatest obstacle.

“To have just purebred red wolves on the landscape, I don't care how much money you put in, I think that's a physical impossibility at this point,” he says, given the thousands of coyotes in the region, and the fact that red wolves hybridize with them when they have a dearth of other mates.

As the Team approaches a February 2023 deadline for updating the Red Wolf Recovery Plan last revised in 1990, they just released a draft plan for public comment.  Two areas are of particular strategic focus: first, finding additional reintroduction sites in the red wolves’ historic range to expand distribution of the species. Second, maintaining long-term genetic diversity via the 240 red wolves living in captivity. Substantial red wolf DNA has also been found in hybrid coyotes in Texas, a potential source of genetic restoration.

The ongoing saga of the red wolf—its dramatic comeback from extinction, subsequent spiral back toward the brink, and ongoing fight for survival—illustrates not only the complex relationships humans have with apex predators, but also the difficult work of conservation. In this Anthropocene age of extinctions, one can hope it will someday be told as a success story, rather than an account of another species being wiped off the face of the earth.

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