A study by the Center for Biological Diversity identifies West Virginia’s Monongahela National Forest as a potential reintroduction site for the red wolf, described by National Geographic as “the world’s most endangered member of the dog family.”
The 919,000-acre forest is part of a 20,000-square-mile assemblage of public land in six Eastern states where the red wolf once ranged, with the habitat and isolation needed to eventually support 500 breeding pairs of the species, according to the study.
With only 14 red wolves known to exist in the wild, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service should immediately begin the proposed reintroduction before the species goes extinct in the wild, according to the Center, a 1.1 million-member nonprofit group dedicated to protecting endangered plants and animals.
“Red wolves could thrive again across vast areas, but only if the Trump administration returns them to the wild,” said Collette Adkins, the center’s carnivore conservation director. “These incredibly imperiled animals can’t afford any more delays.”
The study examined public land in the Eastern United States to determine the best remaining habitat for red wolf reintroduction. Among factors taken into account were the availability of adequate prey, the potential for reproductive isolation from coyotes, to reduce hybridization, the relative absence of roads, and connectivity to other breeding sites.
In addition to the Monongahela, potential red wolf breeding sites were identified in the George Washington and Jefferson national forests, parts of which extend into West Virginia from Virginia, and on national forests in North Carolina, Arkansas, Florida and Alabama.
Red wolves now live in the wild in a single population within a tract of private and public land in Eastern North Carolina.
In the 1800s and early 1900s, the wolves ranged throughout the Southeastern states, and could be found as far north as Pennsylvania and as far west as Western Texas. A historic range map produced by Fish and Wildlife shows that all of West Virginia was once home to the species.
A gray wolf believed to have been the last wolf living in West Virginia was killed by a group of hunters in Randolph County in 1897.
In terms of size, red wolves are smaller than gray wolves and larger than coyotes, ranging from 45 to 80 pounds and averaging 4 feet in length. They acquired their common name from the color of their tawny, reddish coats.
Most red wolf populations had disappeared from the landscape by 1950, mainly because of bounty-paying eradication programs, loss of habitat and suitable prey, and inter-breeding with coyote populations that had moved in from the west.
To save the animal from extinction, from 1973 through 1980 the Fish and Wildlife collected the remnants of a red wolf population along the Louisiana-Texas border and placed them in a captive breeding program. Animals from that program were used in a reintroduction program that began in 1987 at Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge, in Northeastern North Carolina, and later included three nearby wildlife refuges, a military bombing range, state land and private property.
By 2006, the North Carolina red wolf reintroduction program, which began with 43 individuals, had grown to 130.
However, during the past 10 years, that number has steeply declined. A five-year review of the program, released in April 2018 by Fish and Wildlife, determined that poor management, relaxed hunting regulations for coyotes — for which red wolves are often mistaken — poaching and opposition to the reintroduction plan by state officials were factors in that decline.
“It is obvious that there are significant threats in Eastern North Carolina, and conditions for recovery of the species are not favorable and a self-sustainable population may not be possible,” the review concluded.
“Additional populations are necessary to red wolf viability and, therefore, its ability to persist in the wild.”
The Eastern North Carolina release area provided “marginal habitat” for the species, according to the review.
But Fish and Wildlife failed to meet a promise to update a recovery plan for the species by the end of 2018 and, in June of this year, the Center filed suit to force the agency to update the recovery plan to include an expanded reintroduction program and to identify needed habitat.
“It is inspiring that so many places remain ideal for returning red wolves to the wild,” Adkins said. “I’m hopeful the report will spur the service to finally walk its talk and move forward with more red wolf introductions.”