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Could red wolves become extinct in northeastern North Carolina?

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Red Wolf Recovery Program is responsible for the reintroduction of the species declared biologically extinct in the 1980s.  Now, after decades of work, they may dismantle the program all together. Local conservation groups recently held rallies to show their support, while some private landowners in the red wolf recovery area want to see the program end. 

The howls of the endangered red wolf are fading in northeastern North Carolina. Their populations have been trending downward leading some to believe that without intervention from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, they’ll fall silent forever.    Others say red wolves have created a local ecological disaster and trying to restore their population in the wild is futile.  Over the years, this complex issue has generated strong and differing opinions on the program’s effectiveness and how the situation should be handled.


Credit Wildlands Network

  As the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service wraps up its two year review of the Red Wolf Recovery Program, they may determine in the coming weeks if they’ll continue the conservation effort.   Assistant Regional Director for Ecological Services for the Southeast Region Leo Miranda in 2014 expressed some skepticism after the review was announced. 

“We currently use the science in making a determination of having a self-sustaining population of red wolves in eastern North Carolina is viable or not, given the hybridization with coyotes issue, as well as climate change, sea level rise that might be a big threat to the species.”

The results of the review are expected in September.  No one knows for sure what will happen to the remaining red wolves if the program is discontinued.  But the idea that the species could become extinct in the wild without human intervention prompted a rally Tuesday at Festival Park on the Washington, North Carolina waterfront.

"I'm here to support the effort to save the red wolves.  They're becoming extinct and I think we should do everything we can to preserve them in the wild."

About 45 people held signs with pro-red wolf slogans and chanted “FWS, don’t throw in the towel. Diversity is key, let me hear you howl.”   Some of the messages were aimed at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Director.

"F.W.S. Director Dan, save the red wolves, yes we can"

“We want to show the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that people in North Carolina do support the wolf program, do support keeping it here.”

Credit Wildlands Network

  Ron Sutherland is a conservation scientist with the non-profit Wildlands Network. 

“I don’t think they’ve been getting that message.  We’ve been drowned out by some of the anti-wolf folks in recent years.  And so we’re trying to fight back a bit and show that people do support endangered species recovery, do support keeping wolves on the landscape.”

The only place in the world where wild red wolves are found is in Beaufort, Dare, Hyde, Tyrrell and Washington counties.  Their population hit an all-time high of about 130 back in 2005-2006.  Since that time, their numbers have quickly dropped.  In 2014, there was an estimated 90 to 110 red wolves in the wild.  Now, only 40 to 60 remain.  There are a number of reasons for red wolf mortality including natural causes, vehicle strikes, poisoning or gunshot.  President of Pamlico-Albemarle Conservationists Attila Nemecz says he’s concerned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will put the remaining wild red wolves in captivity.

“And we think that there’s no going back from that.  Having a captive breeding program continues the genetics of the red wolf, but at the same time, the spirit and law of the Endangered Species Act is that there has to be wild populations.  They’d have to go back to the drawing board and it’s unclear when we would ever see red wolves again.”

Credit Wildlands Network

Some private landowners in northeastern North Carolina would prefer the Red Wolf Recovery Program be terminated.  

“They would be a fool to keep it going.”

Marco Gibbs has lived in Engelhard in Hyde County his whole life.  He remembers when the first red wolves were released at the nearby Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge in 1987.

“For some crazy reason, they think they could do it.  But after 30 years here with this experiment, I think they say 30 million dollars or more of our taxpayer money, the program is a failure.”

Gibbs blames the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services for changing regulations in order to continue the program.  He remembers being told that the red wolves would stay on refuge property and eat small mammals like opossums and nutria.  That, he says turned out to be a lie.

“They told us a lot of things about that wolf. Would not breed with wild dogs and coyotes, would not eat big game, purpose of the collar was to keep it on the refuge, it would not pack, would only have one or two in a liter. They’ve had a lot of liters with five and six.”

And he’s not the only one who wants to see the recovery program’s end. Ottis Clayton Jr. owns a 600 acre farm about a mile from the Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge.

Credit Wildlands Network

  “That’s where they released them and that just got took over with the wolves and coyotes.  I lost count at 23 one night.”

Clayton is a hunter and trapper as well.  He says the red wolf has caused the population of coyotes to get out of hand. 

“If we were like other counties in the state, if we didn’t have a red wolf, we would have coyote hunting at night and we could better handle to keep them from being so thick.  That night I saw twenty five, I couldn’t shoot them.  It’s against the law because the red wolf is here.”

To make matters worse, Clayton says red wolves and the increasing number of coyotes are decimating the wildlife around his property.

“I have deer plots and stuff.  I feed the deer and try to increase the wildlife and have a better hunt there.  That just draws them… the more you feed them deer and the quail, that just makes a food plot for the wolves and the coyotes.”

Credit Wildlands Network

  However, conservation scientist with Wildlands Network Ron Sutherland argues the red wolf helps bring balance to the food chain since it’s a top predator.  He says the argument that red wolves and coyotes are wiping out the wildlife is untrue.

“We put out 22 wildlife cameras in the red wolf recovery area in 2015 with the idea of documenting what’s out there in terms of the wildlife. We’re trying to address some concerns that the wolves and coyotes are causing some sort of wildlife disaster.”

Over the course of a year, the cameras in the Alligator River and Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuges have collected more than 10,000 images.

“And what we’ve found is the woods are full with wildlife in that area, it’s the furthest thing from a wildlife disaster that you can get to on the East Coast I think.  It’s probably one of the best wildlife spectacles in the United States.”

Credit Wildlands Network

  The Red Wolf Recovery Program was once a story of the successful reintroduction of a species declared biologically extinct in the wild.  Nearly thirty years later, the mention of it conjures up passionate opinions and strong arguments for and against the red wolf.  Still, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has the final word.  They’re set to announce whether they’ll continue or end the program in September. 

To see a collection of images from Wildland Network's cameras in the red wolf recovery area, go to: www.flickr.com/photos/redwolfreality/albums

Jared Brumbaugh is the Assistant General Manager for Public Radio East. An Eastern North Carolina native, Jared began his professional public radio career at Public Radio East while he was a student at Craven Community College earning his degree in Electronics Engineering Technology. During his 15+ years at Public Radio East, he has served as an award-winning journalist, producer, and on-air host. When not at the station, Jared enjoys hiking, traveling, and honing his culinary skills.