By Ken Fine
Somewhere in the eastern North Carolina wilderness, concealed by a canopy of oaks and pines, a pack of collared predators roams.
The animals have no idea that, in as soon as a few days, they could receive what amounts to a death sentence from the very organization that fitted them, when they were newly born pups in their mothers’ dens, with the devices they wear around their necks—that they could very well be the last red wolves to ever inhabit the planet. Unlike the humans fighting for their survival, the wolves aren’t burdened with that reality.
So when, in the coming days or weeks, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service rules on the future of the Red Wolf Recovery Program—a nearly thirty-year-old effort to prevent the extinction of one of the world’s most endangered species, of which there are only about forty left, all in North Carolina—the animals the decision will affect will, quite simply, either live or die. But for those who have dedicated decades to the wolves’ preservation and repopulation, a ruling against the red wolf would set a “dangerous precedent”—one that, in their view, appeases a “vocal handful” of “wealthy, influential” landowners in the eastern part of the state.
“Right now, there is a lot of talk about the red wolf, but I’m sure there are other animals within the endangered species program that are sitting back, watching and worrying,” says Kim Wheeler, executive director of the Red Wolf Coalition, an advocacy group. “They are thinking, ‘This could happen to me.'”
The red wolf was officially listed as an endangered species in 1967, but protections for the species weren’t granted until the Endangered Species Act became federal law six years later. It would take nearly another decade for biologists to trace the last red wolves to natural safe havens—a virtually human-free habitat along the Gulf Coast in western Louisiana and eastern Texas. But there were only seventeen of them left.
Biologists believed there was only one way to save the species: captive breeding and an “experimental release” in a somewhat controlled environment. So when the first litter of pups was born at Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium in Tacoma, Washington, in 1977, they were fitted with tracking collars and released in Bull Island, South Carolina. A year later, the thriving wolves were recaptured and placed back in captivity; the program was deemed a success. But finding a permanent home would take time.
Then, in 1984, it happened. Prudential Insurance Company donated a mass of land that would become the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge in eastern North Carolina—and, after scientists judged this prey-rich land conducive to repopulation, the new home of the only known red wolves in the world.
Fast-forward more than three decades, and these creatures are still at risk. Wheeler says the reasons aren’t much different from those that brought the species to the brink of extinction more than a half-century ago.
“The red wolf did not go away naturally,” she says. “It went away because of hunting and development.”
Illegal shootings and the destruction of the wolves’ habitat have played a role, but there’s another problem: the wolves have a tendency to breed with coyotes. Because the resulting pups do not fall under the protection of the Endangered Species Act, they can be killed legally. The problem then becomes prosecuting those who shoot a red wolf because they couldn’t tell the difference. Add to that the fact that, if a red wolf is breeding with a coyote, it is not breeding with another red wolf.
Wheeler says she’s astonished that the feds would even consider letting the wolves simply disappear. “I know Fish and Wildlife can solve these problems,” she said. “They need to not walk away from this commitment.”
So why would they? Wolf advocates contend that the USFWS is simply rubber-stamping misinformation being peddled by the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission on behalf of a small number of landowners—for instance, Wheeler says, suggestions that the wolves could attack children and have decimated the deer population.
Those arguments were then made in Raleigh, prompting an unsuccessful legislative effort last year to ask the feds to abandon the program. House Bill 1144 requested that the USFWS declare the red wolf extinct in the wild and remove the wolves from state lands; it never made it to the floor for a vote.
State Representative Pricey Harrison, D-Guilford, says a “balanced picture has not been portrayed.” Red wolves, she says, are only in danger because the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission folded under “political pressure.”
The wildlife commission deferred all questions to the USFWS—which, in turn, did not respond to multiple interview requests—but it’s made clear that it has little interest in preserving the red wolf. According to a source in the National Parks Service, in 2015, the USFWS stopped releasing captive red wolves into the wild and eliminated its full-time red wolf coordinator position. The coyote sterilization program, which was designed to prevent hybridization, slowed to a crawl. The commission even issued a lethal control permit to a landowner, entitling him to shoot red wolves on his property, the source says. A breeding female was killed as a result, despite federal requirements that the government first attempt to remove the wolf from the property. Last year, the Red Wolf Coalition filed a lawsuit against the USFWS over that permit.
“It is highly disappointing. I don’t think they’ve embraced the program the way they should have,” Harrison says. “I hope we have a change of leadership.”
But Harrison knows that, with a decision on the fate of the red wolf expected sometime in September, no such change would do the animals any good. She’s encouraging residents to contact their representatives post haste.
“Folks can’t be complacent, and there is quite a coalition working all over the country to save these red wolves,” she says. “They were almost extinct and brought back from the brink. The fact that we’re willing to abandon that success story is just shocking.”