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TN: Red wolves’ background gives them fighting chance

On Jan. 30, 1991 there was a lot of fanfare surrounding the reintroduction of red wolves into the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Two mated pairs of red wolves — one pair from Florida, the other a shotgun marriage of a wolf from Mississippi to one from Connecticut — were released and red wolves were back in East Tennessee for the first time since 1905.

In 1998, the reintroduction project was called a failure. In all, 37 red wolves were released into the park and 33 pups were born in the wild. When the plug was pulled on the red wolves in the Smokies, a biologist said at the time “We’re getting almost no survival out of these animals.”

That’s why it was big news when a red wolf pup was born at Zoo Knoxville on the last day of April.

What’s this got to do with anything almost 20 years later? What’s important about red wolves when you have the Summer Olympics in Brazil, Trump and Clinton running for the White House, football practice going on at UT and squirrel season just 20 days away?

Even though people and wildlife that were here yesterday and gone today don’t always mix, I’ve got a soft spot for critters making a comeback … even those that don’t end up on the grill.

And if a recent discovery was right, there may be a novel way for red wolves, one of the most endangered species in North America, to make a comeback.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has spent millions of dollars and worked through hundreds of controversies trying to get the red wolves a foothold in their native range, more often than not running into the same sort of issues that doomed reintroduction into the Smokies.

The only wild population left lives in five counties in eastern North Carolina and the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission has asked the USFWS to pull the plug on the effort. For now the program is suspended.

It turns out all those millions of dollars and hundreds of controversies were over an animal that may be nothing more than the offspring of gray wolves and coyotes that got amorous with one another.

According to research published last month in “Science Advances” combine Canis lupus (gray wolf) with Canis latrans (coyote) in the right percentages and you get Canis rufus (red wolf).

The article, which can be found on the web under the title “Whole-genome sequence analysis shows that two endemic species of North American wolf are admixtures of the coyote and gray wolf” says that a red wolf is about 75 percent coyote with some gray wolf thrown in. The lesser known eastern wolf, which is not listed as an endangered species but could be, is, according to the report, about 25 percent to 50 percent coyote and the rest is gray wolf.

The report says one of the reasons red wolves have a hard time in the wild is the omnipresence of coyotes. It said the reintroduction effort in North Carolina “is doomed to genetic swamping by coyotes without extensive management of the hybrids.”

Back in the ’90s when the red wolf project was going strong in Cades Cove we took a drive up there with hopes of seeing one.

Cades Cove was where I saw my first wild turkey decades before I ever dreamed of hunting one. It was where you could see deer that looked like the ones on the covers of the hunting magazines. It was where I once had a bear brush up against my leg while I was riding a bike around the loop.

It was a long shot, but we went up there to find a wolf and got lucky. Out in one of the fields, a red wolf was down in an almost bird dog-like crouch sneaking up on something.

So I saw a red wolf long before I saw a bald eagle in Tennessee or dreamed that one day there would be elk living wild just a few minutes up the road.

Some are reacting to the report as if it’s an insult to the red wolf to say it’s only a wolf-yote hybrid. It actually seems like pretty good news to me: As long as there’s coyotes and gray wolves around you always can bring the red wolf back.

Bob Hodge is a freelance contributor.

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