COLUMBIA — Hank and Betty, red wolf mates, nervously trotted back and forth along a chain-link barrier – stopping occasionally to peer through the trees at U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist Art Beyer, who was standing near their den.
Beyer’s presence can mean a check-up or immunizations but on this day, he was just showing them off.
The wary pair lives within a fenced, wooded enclosure of about 3 acres near this Tyrrell County seat on the south side of the Albemarle Sound. Surrounding them is 1.7 million acres in five northeastern North Carolina counties that are the only place in the world where endangered wild red wolves roam.
Hank and Betty have the new role of drawing more attention to one of the Earth’s rarest mammals – and none too soon, Beyer said.
After more than 20 years of the population growing successfully, the number of wild red wolves has dwindled below 100 for the first time in at least a decade, Beyer said. That includes seven litters with 34 pups that Beyer has counted this year, he said.
“There’s a difference, and it’s not a good difference,” Beyer said.
He is not sure if the decline is a trend or a short-term aberration.
But just last week, two red wolves were found shot to death, making a total of six fatal shootings this year. Authorities have confirmed or suspected shootings in the deaths of 40 red wolves in the past five years.
Red wolves die more from shootings than from any other cause, including being struck by vehicles, according to the Fish and Wildlife website. Shootings not only knock out a wolf but disrupt the pack and mating dynamics, possibly reducing the number of litters in the spring, said Kim Wheeler, executive director of the nonprofit Red Wolf Coalition.
The state in July authorized hunting coyotes during the day or night. Environmental groups last month sued the state over that policy, arguing that coyote hunters were killing the larger red wolves either by accident or on purpose. The state maintains that shooting or trapping coyotes helps control an invasive species that kills livestock and carries diseases.
“Trapping and hunting, and night hunting on private lands, are effective tools for landowners to manage these localized coyote populations,” the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission said in a statement responding to the suit.
Shy Hank and Betty may help enlighten the public to the issue, Wheeler said.
School groups and college researchers saw them by appointment for the first time last summer.
Now plans are to start having scheduled hours this summer – likely on Saturdays – for the public to see Hank and Betty, Wheeler said. As the hostess, she will talk about the biology and status of red wolves.
Hank and Betty were born in captivity and will remain there. They eat dog food rather than rabbits, mice and deer, as their wild relatives do.
“They are the missing educational piece,” Wheeler said.
Centuries ago, red wolves roamed the southeastern United States. North Carolina records show bounties offered for wolves in the late 1700s. But by the 1960s, biologists realized the red wolf was nearly extinct and began efforts to save it. Still, it appeared that the species was doomed in the late 1970s.
About 400 individuals were captured and culled to 17 that were considered pure red wolves. Fourteen of those could breed. In 1980, red wolves were declared extinct in the wild.
Seven years later, four captive pairs were released into the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge to re-establish a wild population. While five of the original eight died early on, two pups were born in the spring of 1988. More captive wolves also were added, and the pack grew.
Earlier this week, Beyer drove his pickup to a dirt road along an expansive farm field a few miles from Hank and Betty’s enclosure. He hoped to locate a potential new pairing of red wolves previously outfitted with electronic tracking collars.
He held an antenna high over his head and picked up a faint, repeated beep. That would be the male. Another frequency rendered another beep indicating the female.
“They’re together; they’re close – that’s good,” he said.
Both signals were coming from the southwest, possibly within a distant patch of woods. Beyer couldn’t see them, but it didn’t matter.
A new wolf pair is an exciting event when trying to restore a wild species, Beyer said. But they have obstacles to hurdle before they can mate and have a litter next spring.
“That cycle has to continue,” Beyer said. “The whole project hinges on events like this.”