By Kenneth Heard
JONESBORO — Arkansas State University, which changed its mascot from the Indians to the Red Wolves in 2008, is now working toward helping save the endangered species.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Endangered Wolf Center in Eureka, Mo., will begin sending blood and tissue samples of red wolves, along with carcasses, to the Arkansas Center for Biodiversity Collections on the Jonesboro campus.
The center will catalog the samples, and research causes of diseases and death in the dwindling red wolf population, said Thomas Risch, professor of animal ecology and chairman of ASU’s Department of Biological Sciences.
“Our role is as a curator,” Risch said. “But we will be involved in repopulating the species.”
An estimated 274 red wolves remain in the United States, said the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Of those, 234 are in wildlife centers and zoos.
ASU’s collection center will operate similar to that used at the University of New Mexico’s Museum of Southwestern Biology, which gathers samples of the endangered Mexican wolf.
ASU was selected as the collection site because of its proximity to the Endangered Wolf Center in Missouri, student involvement in other animal programs and the fact that ASU is the only U.S. university with a red wolf as a mascot.
ASU trustees voted to change the mascot from the Indians on Jan. 31, 2008, after the NCAA banned American Indian imagery and names from use.
“The red wolf is a noble species that once inhabited Arkansas,” former ASU Chancellor Robert Potts said when revealing the new logo nearly 10 years ago.
Then he added sports-related rhetoric that rankles people who study the animal.
“The red wolf is vicious and aggressive,” Potts told about 500 people during the public unveiling on the Jonesboro campus. “They destroy many opponents.”
That’s not really the case, unless weakened deer, rabbits, squirrels and other rodents are considered “opponents,” said Regina Mossetti, director of animal care and conservation at the Endangered Wolf Center.
“Wolves get a bad rap,” she said. “In Little Red Riding Hood, The Three Little Pigs and Frozen, wolves are always the bad guys.
“Red wolves have never hurt a human in history,” she said. “They are more afraid of humans than humans are of them. But because of the culture, ‘wolf’ is a demonized word.”
Red wolves weigh about 60 pounds. A timber wolf weighs 110 pounds.
“There is a misunderstanding about wolves,” Mossetti said. “The fear is perpetuated by myth.”
Red wolves once thrived in the United States, but as expansion pushed westward in the 1800s the U.S. government placed bounties on the animals, fearing that they attacked cattle and humans. They were placed on the endangered-species list in 1973 and deemed extinct in the wild in 1980.
After some were raised in captivity, red wolves were released in eastern North Carolina in 1987 in a bid to revive the species.
Mossetti said she hopes information gathered by ASU’s collection center will help save the red wolf. “The red wolf is the most endangered animal in the world,” she said.
She said by collecting the blood and tissue samples from live and dead wolves, ASU will be able to provide information for research on the wolves’ nutrition, diseases, reproductive system and management.
“There were a lot of factors in choosing ASU,” she said. “There’s the attention given to the mascot, and they have an amazing biology department. It was a natural fit.”
In a news release issued by ASU announcing the collection center, ASU System spokesman Jeff Hankins said wildlife officials were impressed by the university’s involvement.
“We’re in a unique position to educate our students and alumni about the plight of the endangered red wolves,” Hankins said in the release. “Our Red Wolves athletics program significantly enhances these efforts with prominent national media attention for the red wolf name.”
ASU also will make other students aware of its red wolf program. This fall, all ASU freshmen will use T. DeLene Beeland’s book The Secret World of Red Wolves: The Fight to Save North America’s Other Wolf, as its first-year common reader. The biology department is developing a Red Wolves for Red Wolves organization to promote conservation, and new Chancellor Kelly Damphousse has created a theme of Every Red Wolf Counts for the university.
The first blood samples taken from several red wolf pups in captivity are expected to be sent to ASU in early September, Risch said.
“We want to educate the public first,” Risch said. “The ideal situation is to reintroduce wolves to private sites in five to seven years. Wolves travel a large area. There’s no way an animal will only stay on national forestlands. We need private landowners involved.
“This is a good start.”