COLUMBIA — As the number of known red wolves roaming in the wilds of northeastern North Carolina has dwindled to a mere dozen, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service says it is taking steps to increase the wild population while methodically making progress on its revised management plan for the critically endangered species.
On the heels of an uproar from wolf supporters about the agency’s proposal to drastically decrease the wolf’s recovery area, a federal judge’s ruling on Nov. 5, 2018, agreed with a challenge from environmental groups that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service was not abiding by its legal requirement to properly protect the red wolves.
Promptly after the decision, the agency announced that the proposed revision to the species’ management would have to go under additional review.
Nearly 18 months later, there is still no final red wolf management plan. But a spokesman assures that work has been ongoing.
“Updating the Red Wolf Recovery Plan is a priority for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service,” Phil Kloer, public affairs specialist for the service’s Southeast Region, said in a Feb. 21 email in response to an inquiry from Coastal Review Online.
“We originally intended to complete the revised recovery plan in 2018,” Kloer responded. “However, delays in the species status assessment, which serves as the scientific basis for the recovery plan, and the congressionally mandated taxonomic review of the red wolf resulted in the Service postponing work on the recovery plan.”
With the most recent species status assessment in April 2018 affirming the endangered status of the red wolf, Kloer said that the service had been working since then to develop the proposed final recovery plan. The plan will be followed by the “recovery outline” that will determine “specific actions and locations,” according to Kloer’s email.
“We are in the process of completing the next phase in plan development through a competitive bidding opportunity,” Kloer said in the email.
Recent modifications by the Trump administration to the Endangered Species Act, or ESA, were not retroactive and will not affect any management strategies for the red wolf, he added. The agency, which is charged with implementing the ESA, first listed the red wolf as endangered in 1967, and declared it extinct in the wild in 1980. Seven years later, four pairs of captive-bred pups were released in the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge. Since 1995, the animals have been managed under a special rule as a “nonessential, experimental” population.
Over the years, the number of wolves grew – estimates have ranged from 130 to 151 – while the designated recovery area expanded to 1.7 million acres of public and private land in Hyde, Tyrrell, Washington, Beaufort and Dare counties.
A captive-bred red wolf pup. Photo: Ryan Nordsven/USFWS
Much of the success in the recovery program was attributed to two innovative management techniques: the use of sterile coyotes to hold territory and limit encroachment into red wolf territory, and sneaking captive-born wolf pups into wild wolf dens while mom is hunting.
But in 2014, the recovery program was facing increasing criticism from property owners and some public and elected officials over concerns that wolves were endangering pets and livestock and depleting deer populations. Eventually pup adoption and coyote sterilization were both dropped.
Meanwhile, more wolves were being killed by gunshots, whether because they were mistaken for a coyote, which can be hunted legally during daytime hours, or intentionally shot, which is against federal law. But in an effort to address complaints from landowners, Fish and Wildlife had also begun allowing limited takes of wild wolves on private property.
Speaking in September 2016 during a congressional hearing, Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., said that 514 private landowners and farmers had each sent letters to the Fish and Wildlife Service requesting that red wolves be kept off their land. Tillis characterized the recovery program as a failure and called for it to be shut down.
A year later, the agency proposed a drastic reduction in the recovery area to a portion of the Alligator River refuge and the military bombing range near East Lake on the Dare County mainland. The proposal would also allow wolves outside the range to be shot.
But in the November 2018 ruling, U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina Chief Judge Terrence W. Boyle said that the Fish and Wildlife Service had violated the ESA by cutting successful management tactics. He also ordered a permanent ban on the capture and killing of red wolves on private property without proof of a threat to people, pets or livestock.
In response to a question about whether the Fish and Wildlife Service is considering reinstituting the coyote sterilization strategy, Kloer said that the agency is working with the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission “on canid management within the northeastern non-essential, experimental population.”
Analysis of potential red wolf recovery areas in other states, he added, “will be part of the process to update the recovery plan.”
Kloer also said “it is premature to speculate” whether or not the captive wolf pup fostering will be resumed in the future.
Right now, there aren’t any established wolf couples looking to settle down in the den with the family. For the first time since red wolves were reintroduced to northeastern North Carolina, there were no documented wolves born in the wild in 2019, nor were there breeding pairs, according to Joe Madison, manager of the Red Wolf Recovery Program.
Currently, there are 12 known wolves – that is, those wearing radio collars – living within the five-county recovery area, he said. Including uncollared wolves, the total wild population is estimated at about 20. There are also 245 captive red wolves in 42 facilities such as zoos and conservation centers throughout the U.S.
In December, the Fish and Wildlife Service built two acclimation pens in the Alligator River refuge, and one in the Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge, in hopes that 30 days or so of wolf “dating” would result in bonded mating pairs.
However, Madison said, it has been a challenge to capture the wild wolves to get them together with wolves transferred from the St. Vincent National Wildlife Refuge, a red wolf propagation site located on an island off the coast of northwestern Florida.
“These wolves are very trap-savvy,” Madison told an audience at the Pocosin Lakes Wildlife Refuge visitor center in Columbia after a showing in January of the 2015 film, “Red Wolf Revival,” a documentary about the recovery program.
The goal, he said, is to create three new breeding pairs, each composed of one native and one imported wolf, within the recovery area as a way to both sustain the wild population and increase its genetic diversity. But like people, sometimes wolves just don’t click. For example, the female in a failed match at a Columbia site wouldn’t let the rejected male into the den.
“They’ve got their own personalities,” Madison said in an interview.
Ideally, when a compatible couple wearing new radio collars is released into the wild, the newcomer wolf will want to stay in the same territory as the local wolf and will successfully produce a litter of about four pups by early May.
“What we’re doing now is all stuff that has been under the management for years, for decades,” Madison said.
Under an interpretation of the existing management rule, the agency does not have the authority to do pup fostering because it had not been properly specified, Madison said. The proposed rule that is still under review, however, has added that authority.
The Fish and Wildlife Service regularly monitors the radio-collared wolves, he said, including via twice-weekly flights, weather permitting.
Although it doesn’t specify locations, webcams on the Wolf Conservation Center website allow people to watch – and comment on – actual real-time captured wolf activities. At one site, wolf fans have been spying on the courtship of red wolves “Tyke” and “Lava” in an acclimation pen, which appears to be a large fenced area in the woods, with a hole in the ground, presumably the den.
“Tyke’s looking for his sweetheart!” exclaimed one commenter of a screenshot of a handsome wolf gazing into the woods.
Another commenter interpreted a shot of Tyke sprawled over the top of the den area, fast asleep, as a sign that Cupid may have struck: “Tired – and hopefully – pleased.”
A red wolf is shown with a radio collar. Photo: Ryan Nordsven/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
Such public engagement with the lives of wolves may be a positive for the species, but the agency’s goal with red wolves is essential to their survival: To foster better communications with the community that has to actually coexist with the species.
To that end, the agency has also stepped up outreach to the community, Kloer said.
A public information session, he said, was conducted jointly by Fish and Wildlife and the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission in December 2019 to advise the public regarding planned management activities.
“We intend to host similar sessions in the future on approximately a quarterly basis,” Kloer said.
It’s a matter of balancing tolerance of wild wolves by landowners with their need to protect their property, livestock and pets, said Kim Wheeler, executive director of the nonprofit Red Wolf Coalition based in Columbia.
On the flip side, with a more open and respectful dialogue, the community can appreciate the agency’s role in preserving red wolves, which are master predators that serve as essential counterweights to coyote overpopulation and help maintain healthy numbers of prey.
“I think it’s a wonderful idea,” Wheeler said. “I think that has been a Fish and Wildlife challenge in the past.”
Conversation helps everyone to find common ground, she said, because “we all have wonderful conservation values.”
Representatives from different government agencies and environmental groups and nonprofits have also started having regular phone conferences to discuss red wolf issues. Wheeler said comments and updates from all the players are available on the coalition’s website.
And with the proliferation of coyotes – they’ve been spotted in places as unlikely as the streets of Chicago – as well as wild hogs, jellyfish and carp, people are starting to see the result of an imbalance of nature.
Wheeler, who is starting her 15th year at her job, said that she had seen encouraging signs for the wolves, including an increase of supporters for red wolf recovery efforts.
“I refuse to believe that the red wolf won’t find a place on the landscape,” she said.
But there is continuing concern that the Fish and Wildlife Service is not doing enough to save the red wolves.
“What’s unfortunate, that’s a little too late,” said Ramona McGee, staff attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center in Chapel Hill, which represented plaintiffs the Red Wolf Coalition, Defenders of Wildlife and the Animal Welfare Institute in the action Judge Boyle ruled on. “But it’s nowhere what needs to be done for that species.”
In the months since the ruling, the law center has been kept in the dark about what measures are being considered in the ongoing review, McGee said, while recovery efforts “continue to languish.”
In response to public records requests made in October, she said, some documents are starting to be provided by the Fish and Wildlife Service. But so far, the released information, such as documents about the wolf transfers from St. Vincent, has not added to understanding the agency’s response.
“It’s not something new,” she said about the transfer strategy. “It’s something that the Fish and Wildlife Service had in the works before the court ruled … The facts do not show that program being ramped up.”
The law center believes that the pup-fostering and coyote-sterilization management tactics are essential to survival of the red wolves in the wild, McGee said. But the clock is ticking.
“It is very troubling to watch the agency hold the fate of the species in their hands and have the tools available to rectify that,” she said, “and not rectify that.”