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What's in the new Red Wolf Recovery Plan?

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
Released on Sept. 29, the updated plan calls for more releases of captive red wolves into the wild, sustained efforts to curb human-caused deaths, and strong practices to curb interbreeding with coyotes, among other things.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service released its long-awaited update to the Red Wolf Recovery Plan, a document that lays out the vision and goal posts for bringing the red wolf off the Endangered Species List. It's the first update in more than three decades and it comes at a time when the recovery program seems to be getting back on its feet, after a decade of litigation and stalled management efforts.

Released on Sept. 29, the updated plan calls for more releases of captive red wolves into the wild, sustained efforts to curb human-caused deaths, and strong practices to curb interbreeding with coyotes, among other things. The red wolf was declared extinct in the wild in the 1970s, and now five counties in Eastern North Carolina are the only place to have wild red wolves, after an experimental population was established there.

Kim Wheeler is director of the Red Wolf Coalition, an advocacy and education organization. Wheeler is also an author of the plan, and she says its purpose is not to proscribe certain actions, but rather to set the guidelines for achieving a self-sustaining wild red wolf population.

"The reason for that is science changes on the ground," Wheeler said. "You need that flexibility to change as the needs and goals for recovering the red wolf change."

The previous plan was written in 1990. just a four years after the Eastern North Carolina population was established. To date, it's the only area to host red wolves successfully. Red Wolf Recovery Program Coordinator Emily Weller says the new plan goes further than the 1990 plan.

"At that time, it was looking at whether a population could be established," Weller said. "Well, now we know how reintroducing this large carnivore on the landscape can go."

The Endangered Species Act was passed in 1973. That same year, the Red Wolf Recovery Program was established, making the red wolf among the first listed. Now, fifty years later, the plan includes criteria for removing the red wolf from the Endangered Species List for the first time. The three criteria are the following: 1) three viable populations are established within the red wolf's historic range, 2) there are at least 740 wolves across those three populations with gene diversity maintained and those populations are stable or growing for at least 10 years without extensive human intervention, and 3) there are long-term practices in place to reduce threats to the species.

The red wolf's historic range includes much of the Eastern United States an the Gulf, from Pennsylvania to Florida to Texas. Establishing additional populations outside of Eastern North Carolina will be difficult. In 1992, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife tried establishing another population in the Great Smoky Mountains, but that program ended in 1998 due to low pup survival. Weller says the attempt in the Great Smoky Mountains didn't work out for a few reasons. Of the forty red wolves born in the wild there, none survived. Canine parvovirus was a major culprit. The other reasons is coyotes, who moved in and competed for food.

"Because of low offspring survival and the inability to establish home ranges within the Great Smoky Mountains National Park itself, they decided to shut it down," Weller said. "Without offspring, you can't expect a population to grow right?"

Although ENC has hosted a red wolf population for more than thirty years, a series of challenges pose a risk to the species there. At its peak in 2012, more than 100 red wolves lived in ENC. Today, an estimated 25, up from 17 two years ago.

One of those challenges is a familiar one — coyotes. The coyote is a smaller canid than the red wolf, but the two do compete for land and food, as well as interbreed. With such a small population of red wolves there, preventing hybridization is a priority for preserving the species in the wild.

"When red wolves don't come into contact with other red wolves, unfortunately they settle for coyotes," Katerina Ramos, Red Wolf Education and Outreach Coordinator for the North Carolina Wildlife Federation, said.

Coyotes cause other problems, too. In North Carolina, coyotes can be hunted year around, and in some areas, they're not a welcomed visitor. In the 2010s, coyotes entered Eastern North Carolina and their population grew. Landowners and farmers grew concerned, and night hunting of coyotes was a solution for some. Red wolves would sometimes be confused for a coyote and shot, making gunshot mortality a rising concern among conservationists.

"At that point, the wolf became perceived as more of an obstacle for landowners trying to manage their land in a way they felt they needed to," Pete Benjamin with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife told a crowd at a public hearing in 2018.

In 2012, the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission (NCWRC) approved a temporary rule that allowed night hunting.

In 2013, a lawsuit was filed to halt nighttime coyote hunting. The suit 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. That settlement allowed hunting of coyotes on private land with a permit and no hunting on public lands, with narrow exceptions.

Death due to gunshot and vehicle crashes continues to be a significant threat to the species, says Weller.

"Anthropogenic mortality is one of the — if not the — greatest threat to red wolf populations," she said. "You can expect there will be a certain level of mortality, but the key is to maintain that mortality rate at a level that allows the population to grow.”

It was a tense period in the Red Wolf Recovery Program's history. Landowners and advocacy organizations felt the USFW wasn't being transparent. Weller says USFW has taken a lesson from the past decade.

“We didn't do everything right the first time around and we acknowledge that,” Weller said. "The only way we can recover this species is to have local communities, landowners, and other contributors buy in and participate."

The new plan heavily emphasizes collaboration and changing public perception. Over the last few years, USFW has hosted public meetings, in-person and online, to address concerns and provide updates.

“The last one they had, I felt like even though there were some of the same people bringing up some of the same things, they didn't bring those up this time," Wheeler said. "I feel like their questions are moving forward.”

As for changing public perceptions, Ramos says wolves get a bad rap. Children's tales like Little Red Riding Hood and Frozen present wolves as confrontational and very aggressive. Ramos says those depictions are not accurate.

"They don't really like being around people. They're a very elusive species," Ramos said.

The new report lays out other measures: identifying additional areas to host wild red wolves and growing the captive population to support genetic diversity. The plan asserts there will need to be significant investments to de-list the red wolf, estimating it’ll likely take 50 years and $300 million.

After years of stalled progress, USFW resumed releases of captive-born wolves into the wild in 2021. For the last two years, a mating pair produced litters in the wild. With the wild population growing again — even if slowly — and the release of the new plan, conservationists are optimistic. Ramos calls this moment a "renaissance" for the red wolf, and Weller says it's a "new beginning."

"We're essentially starting from square one," Weller said. "But there has been positive momentum and support for the program. It's slow, but it's there."

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.