© 2024 Public Radio East
Public Radio For Eastern North Carolina 89.3 WTEB New Bern 88.5 WZNB New Bern 91.5 WBJD Atlantic Beach 90.3 WKNS Kinston 88.5 WHYC Swan Quarter 89.9 W210CF Greenville
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Wild red wolf population on the rise again after years of decline

A wild red wolf captured on a trail camera
Wildlands Network
A wild red wolf captured on a trail camera.

The only place you’ll find a red wolf in the wild is the Alligator River Refuge. Red wolves are native to much of the southeastern U.S., but their population has dwindled since colonization. Today, just a handful of red wolves live in the wild, and efforts to protect them have fluctuated since they were first classified as endangered in 1967.

After a decade of decline, the success of the wild population on the Alligator River Refuge in Dare County seems to be swinging upward. Three new litters were born – one in the wild and two in acclimation pens.

The red wolf was one of the first animals brought under the Endangered Species Act fifty years ago, and after decades of effort to restore the species to its natural habitat, there were more 100 or so living on the refuge in the early 2000s -- enough for a self-sustaining population. Chris Lasher is an animal management supervisor at the North Carolina Zoo, where he monitors the captive and wild populations and recommends breeding pairs.

“The population was pretty much as close as self-sustaining as you can get while still trying to monitor wolves and keep them inside the recovery location,” Lasher, who has worked on the Red Wolf Recovery effort for more than 30 years, said.

But in the early 2000s, things took a turn. Coyotes began encroaching on the area, frightening landowners and farmers. Coyote hunting was seen as a natural remedy, but red wolves were sometimes mistaken for coyotes, especially at night.

Director of the Red Wolf Coalition Kim Wheeler says 10% of the wild red wolf population died from hunting efforts. The coalition advocates for the long-term survival of the red wolf, and in 2013, it joined a lawsuit to halt nighttime coyote hunting. The suit brought by the Southern Environmental Law Center on behalf of the Red Wolf Coalition, Animal Welfare Institute, and Defenders of Wildlife claimed the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission (NCWRC) violated the Endangered Species Act by disrupting breeding and pack formation. It was settled a year later.

Wheeler believes the settlement created resentment for the federal Red Wolf Recovery Program, managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services.

“As a landowner, you see the government maybe trying to impose an animal that maybe you don't want around because you don't understand it or you're fearful. You're not sure what it means if it comes on your property,” she said.

In 2015, NCWRC passed a resolution recommending the dissolution of the Recovery Program, and a small but vocal group of people challenged whether the red wolf was even a species. They asserted it was a coyote hybrid and therefore didn’t warrant protection. U.S. Fish and Wildlife planned to put the program on ice, halting releases and designating the remaining wild population as a “nonessential experimental population.” Litigation in federal court put everything on hold.

“The litigation applied only to the five counties where red wolves were, which kind of alienated a lot of the landowners in that in that area,” Lasher said. “The landowners then felt the only reason we're having this these restrictions are because the red wolves are here.”

In 2019, a panel of top scientists ruled it is a unique species, and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services resumed releases and the wild red wolves on the Alligator River Refuge were deemed essential

The lawsuits took years to settle, but by then the damage had been done. In 2018, just 8 red wolves remained in the wild, down from a peak of 130 in 2006. Katerina Ramos is an educator at the Red Wolf Center in Columbia. She says misinformation and inaccurate depictions in the media create a hostile attitude toward wolves.

“Many people still believe in a lot of the Eurocentric folklore surrounding predators like little Red Riding Hood and the big bad wolf,” Ramos, who is with the North Carolina Wildlife Federation, said. “Even in more new age, Disney movies like Frozen, the wolf is this antagonistic, aggressive animal when the reality is that they're very shy and elusive.”

For four years, no red wolf litter was born in the wild... until 2022, and again this year, another litter was born in the wild from the same breeding pair. Wild born litters play an important role in the red wolf recovery program through what is called pup fostering, where a captive-born pup is placed with a wild litter. The practice boosts genetic diversity.

Also this year, two litters were born in acclimation pens, or enclosed areas that introduce captive red wolves to a natural environment. This brings the current population to an estimated range of 23-25.

“This year was a huge success,” Lasher said.

There remain challenges for the red wolf. A draft report by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife cites gunshots, car crashes and genetic diversity as top concerns. To help mitigate these risks, Ramos and conservationists are educating the public on the red wolf’s appearance and benefits to the ecosystem.

Key characteristics include reddish, burnt-orange fur, white cheeks, and round, blunted ears.

Most of the wild population also has bright orange collars to help hunters and landowners differentiate them from coyotes.

Lasher and Ramos noted that red wolves also help drive out the coyote population. As apex predators, red wolves are protective of their territory and outcompete their more diminutive canine relatives.

As for the negative perceptions of the wolves, U.S. Fish and Wildlife is hosting town halls to field questions and educate people on the red wolf.

Ryan is an Arkansas native and podcast junkie. He was first introduced to public radio during an internship with his hometown NPR station, KUAF. Ryan is a graduate of Tufts University in Somerville, Mass., where he studied political science and led the Tufts Daily, the nation’s smallest independent daily college newspaper. In his spare time, Ryan likes to embroider, attend musicals, and spend time with his fiancée.