By Rob Chaney
DURHAM, N.C. – What may be America’s original wolf species faces a far different battle for survival on the far side of the nation than the predator debates of the Rocky Mountains.
“Gray wolves are charismatic megafauna, but red wolves have never gotten that kind of conservation love,” said DeLene Breeland, author of the recently published book, “The Fight to Save North America’s Other Wolf: The Secret World of Red Wolves.”
“The difference with red wolves is they’ve been absent from the landscape for a much longer period of time than gray wolves,” Breeland said. “As soon as Europeans started coming to the Eastern Seaboard in the 1700s, they were hunting them. They were pretty much wiped out by the 1850s, although small pockets of them survived.”
Now a federally endangered species lurking in a remote corner of what used to be the Great Dismal Swamp of North Carolina, red wolves exist in a controversial world of hunting regulations and lawsuits. But just as red wolves are maybe half the size of their gray wolf brethren, the arguments in the East have a much different scale and flavor. Plus, gray wolves never had to wear sedative-loaded radio collars like the red wolves once did.
The red wolf (Canis rufus) and gray wolf (Canis lupus) share a common ancestor that probably originated around the southwest United States 1 million to 2 million years ago. At some point, some of those wolves followed the prehistoric horse species over to Eurasia, where they evolved into the modern gray wolf. Those wolves naturally repopulated North America about 300,000 years ago, while modern horses had to catch a ride with conquistadors from Spain in the 1500s.
The red and Eastern wolf species remained behind and evolved into a smaller predator common along the Appalachian Mountains. Some biologists argue the American coyote further evolved from these stay-behind wolves between 150,000 and 300,000 years ago.
In 1987, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service used a population of zoo-raised red wolves to re-establish the animal in the 1.7 million-acre Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge in North Carolina. Most of the original 100 federally endangered red wolves were bred at the Point Defiance Zoo in Tacoma, Wash., from wild red wolves captured in Texas and Louisiana.
But what Breeland called a “crude DNA study” in the early 1990s reported that red wolves were actually hybrids of coyotes. The research nearly blew up the reintroduction effort.
“This was a huge black eye to the red wolf program,” Breeland said. “They were one of the crown jewels of the Endangered Species program. Then this paper said it’s just a wild mutt, and you spent all this money. That stigma never left.”
U.S. District Court Judge Terrence Boyle on May 13 ordered an end to coyote hunting in five North Carolina counties where the red wolf has been reintroduced. The ruling stays in place for six months while a lawsuit over permanently ending coyote hunting in the area progresses.
The North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission last July had allowed unlimited coyote hunting on private land and 24-hour hunting on public land for those with permits in the five-county area. The Southern Environmental Law Center and three other conservation groups sued, claiming the liberal rules increased the likelihood of red wolves getting killed by mistake.
Red wolves outweigh coyotes by an average of 20 pounds. But they share similar coloration and shape, with both standing about 2 feet high at the shoulder and 4 feet long from nose to tail. A gray wolf weighs between 80 and 120 pounds and stretches about 6 feet long.
North Carolina hunters killed about 25,000 coyotes last year. Only about 100 red wolves live in 18 to 22 packs in and around the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge at the eastern edge of North Carolina.
That population remains strictly controlled, Breeland said. Every breeding season, wildlife officials radio-collar most of the adults and fly the area to locate dens. After the pups are born, biologists take blood samples of each litter.
“If any shows up as hybrid, they go back and destroy those animals,” Breeland said. “It’s a very heavy-handed technique.”
FWS biologists have also tried bringing in sterilized coyotes to the area. The idea is those sterile animals will keep other coyotes out of the wolf territory and lower the risk of hybridization.
In the early days of the reintroduction effort, public safety was a big concern. So big, Breeland said, that noted wolf researcher David Mech helped the USFWS develop a remotely triggered collar that could shoot sedatives into a wolf’s neck in an emergency.
“The idea was, if a wolf was breaking into somebody’s house and getting somebody’s baby, they could trigger it from two to five miles away and sedate the wolf,” Breeland said. “But there were problems with saltwater corroding the mechanism and it only worked over a mile or so. Basically it was a publicity stunt. They only deployed it once and it didn’t work, and they ended up shooting the wolf with a regular dart gun. They went to all this length to reduce public anxiety, and then it just went away.”
A 2010 Duke University study (http://bit.ly/1njKUnl) of the North Carolina red wolf reintroduction found public safety trailed behind issues like use of tax dollars in the public comment review of wolf conservation efforts. Just as many commenters were upset about red wolves’ potential impact on deer hunting or general mistrust of government as the wolves’ danger to people, and more than twice as many opposed the use of tax dollars on the program.
Meanwhile, gray wolves in the Rocky Mountains have grown from an original reintroduction population of 66 wolves in 1995-96 to 1,691, according to the FWS 2013 annual report (http://1.usa.gov/1t31d5l).
That reintroduction program, as well as similar ones for Mexican gray wolves and black-footed ferrets, was patterned after the North Carolina red wolf project. Breeland said she stumbled across it while working on predator ecology in college, researching the Mexican wolf.
“I grew up in in the Southeast, in Florida, and I’d never heard of this animal,” Breeland said. “When I moved to North Carolina, I thought I might write a magazine article and discovered nobody had written a book. There was this big hole in the literature.”