Humans pose a threat to the preservation of endangered red wolves’ natural habitat, hindering their ability to remain wild

In a recent encounter, Jeff Akin found himself in a situation that tested his composure. Engaging in a conversation with a neighbor, the topic shifted to the imperative task of safeguarding and expanding the red wolf population in the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge. This endangered species, crucial to the ecological balance of the region, is easily distinguishable from the invasive coyotes by the vibrant orange radio collars they wear.

However, to Akin’s dismay, his neighbor expressed a disturbing sentiment, stating that he would intentionally harm any wolf he encountered with a collar, aiming to wound it in such a way that it would flee and eventually succumb to its injuries.

The neighbor justified this act by highlighting the legal repercussions associated with the discovery of a dead wolf near one’s vicinity, as authorities would promptly investigate the presence of the collar and potentially incriminate the individual involved. Akin, grappling with his own convictions, had to restrain himself from expressing his disapproval.

Akin, an avid hunter, takes great pride in his skill and passion for the sport. His country house serves as a testament to his accomplishments, with its walls adorned with numerous photographs capturing the animals he has successfully hunted and killed over the years.

However, one particular incident shattered his sense of fulfillment and left him feeling nauseous. It was a moment that made him question the ethics and morality of his chosen pastime, forcing him to confront the darker side of his actions.

The impact of what he heard was profound, as it challenged his long-held beliefs and made him reconsider the consequences of his actions on the natural world. This unexpected revelation left Akin grappling with a deep sense of discomfort and prompted him to reflect upon the implications of his hunting endeavors.

The quote, “I wouldn’t shoot a squirrel in the stomach if I was hungry,” serves as a poignant reflection on the compassionate nature of individuals when it comes to the treatment of animals.

It encapsulates the larger issue at hand, which is the precarious situation faced by the Canis rufus, a species of wolf that is uniquely American.

At one point, this species was declared extinct in the wild, but thanks to conservation efforts, it was reintroduced in the late 1980s at the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge. Situated just across the sound from the renowned Outer Banks in eastern North Carolina, this refuge has become a symbol of hope and a testament to the power of the Endangered Species Act.

As the Canis rufus became a poster child for conservation, it also paved the way for similar initiatives aimed at reviving other endangered species.

“The red wolf program was a remarkable triumph in the realm of conservation,” asserts Ron Sutherland, a biologist affiliated with the Wildlands Network.

This initiative marked the first instance where a significant carnivore was successfully reintroduced into the wild after being driven to extinction, a groundbreaking achievement unmatched anywhere in the world.

However, the wild population of red wolves now finds itself perilously close to the edge of oblivion, ravaged by gunshots, vehicular accidents, suspected poisonings, and, as some argue, governmental negligence. After nearly three decades, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is on the verge of unveiling an updated recovery plan for the red wolf, signaling a pivotal moment.

According to a preliminary draft, the agency is proposing an allocation of a staggering quarter billion dollars over the next half-century to not only rebuild but also expand the population of wild wolves. “It has been accomplished once before,” asserts Joe Madison, the North Carolina manager for the Red Wolf Recovery Program, with a resolute tone. “And we can certainly achieve it again.”

The success of the conservation efforts for the red wolf hinges greatly on the willingness of private landowners to cooperate. Surprisingly, the passage of 36 years has not seemed to soften the hearts of the locals towards this apex predator.

In this region, agriculture and leasing land to hunters are major economic activities. Some view the red wolf as a direct competitor, posing a threat to a way of life already vulnerable due to the effects of climate change on the delicate landscape.

During a recent public meeting on the program, tensions ran high as a woman vehemently exclaimed, “They don’t belong here!” This sentiment is fueled by a pervasive mistrust of the government.

Consequently, the path ahead appears daunting and fraught with challenges for the preservation of “America’s wolf.” However, individuals like Akin and Sutherland, who are aligned with the cause, believe that despite the obstacles, their efforts are necessary. Sutherland passionately asserts, “The red wolf, it’s ours. It’s ours to save.”

During a recent visit to Alligator River, Madison parked his truck beside a canal and embarked on a task that would shed light on the dwindling population of red wolves.

With utmost precision and a formal demeanor, he carefully placed an H-shaped antenna into the air, causing faint beeps to resonate from a radio held in his left hand. As he slowly swiveled from side to side, Madison’s actions were guided by the radio telemetry, revealing the presence of six red wolves concealed within a patch of brush nestled between two cleared farm fields.

It is astonishing to contemplate that this small group accounts for approximately half of the world’s known wild red wolf population.

Once roaming freely from central Texas to southern Iowa, and even as far northeast as Long Island, New York, the red wolf has suffered immensely due to relentless persecution, encroachment, and habitat loss. These factors have gradually reduced their numbers to a mere remnant clinging to the ragged Gulf coast along the Texas-Louisiana border.

The red wolf recovery program, which was initiated in 1987 with just four breeding pairs, underwent a significant turning point five years later when a second group was introduced into the vast expanse of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Spanning an impressive 522,427 acres (211,418 hectares) of dense forest that straddles the border between North Carolina and Tennessee, this park provided an ideal location for the reintroduction of these endangered creatures.

Sadly, the inland experiment was abruptly terminated in 1998 due to a multitude of factors, including the scarcity of prey, alarmingly low pup survival rates, outbreaks of disease, and the red wolves’ inability to establish stable territories within the park.

Nevertheless, the Alligator River population thrived thanks to the strategic release of adult wolves and the fostering of captive-born pups into wild family groups. This innovative approach served as a blueprint for the successful reintroduction of gray wolves in Yellowstone National Park and has since been emulated in numerous rewilding projects worldwide.

By the year 2012, the red wolf population in the five-county restoration area had reached an impressive peak of approximately 120 individuals. However, this triumph was short-lived, as a series of unfortunate events unfolded.

Shootings and vehicle collisions, with the busy U.S. 64 highway running through the heart of the refuge, emerged as the primary causes of death for these majestic creatures.

Tragically, the wolves fell victim to the relentless dangers posed by human activity. Furthermore, the introduction of coyotes into the region exacerbated the challenges faced by the depleted red wolf population.

These coyotes, though smaller in size, bear a striking resemblance to their red wolf counterparts, leading to hybridization between the two species.

Compounding the issue, the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission sanctioned nighttime spotlight hunting of coyotes, further complicating the preservation efforts for the struggling red wolves.

Despite these setbacks, dedicated conservationists and wildlife enthusiasts remain steadfast in their commitment to the recovery and protection of the red wolf. Efforts are underway to address the various threats facing these remarkable creatures, including the implementation of measures to reduce human-wildlife conflicts and the establishment of protected areas to ensure the red wolves’ survival.

The red wolf recovery program stands as a testament to the resilience and adaptability of these magnificent animals, as well as the unwavering dedication of those working tirelessly to safeguard their future.

Through continued collaboration and unwavering determination, there is hope that the red wolf population will once again flourish, reclaiming its rightful place in the vast wilderness that it calls home.

In January 2015, the state commission made a request to Fish and Wildlife to terminate the program and officially declare the red wolf extinct in the wild once again. In response, the federal agency halted the release of red wolves from the captive population while it re-evaluated the feasibility of species recovery.

A species status assessment conducted in 2018 predicted that the wild population would likely vanish within six years without significant intervention.

Consequently, with no new releases, the wild population dwindled to a mere seven known animals. However, in 2020, conservationists filed a lawsuit against the agency, claiming that the suspension of captive releases violated the Endangered Species Act. As a result, releases and pup fostering resumed the following year.

In early August, the agency reached a settlement with the conservationist groups, pledging to carry out regular releases from the captive population, which currently stands at approximately 270, over the next eight years.

Simultaneously, a new recovery plan and population viability analysis are expected to be published this fall. The most recent draft of the recovery plan proposed a budget of over $256 million for the next five decades.

The agency concluded that, with full funding and implementation, and the complete cooperation of all partners involved, the red wolf could potentially be delisted by 2072.

However, the service has not yet identified suitable locations for establishing additional wild populations, and it remains uncertain whether the North Carolina wolves will have a habitat in the next fifty years. This uncertainty is compounded by the alarming rate at which Greenland is melting.

According to Jeffress Williams, a senior scientist emeritus with the U.S. Geological Survey, if this melting continues at its current pace, the East Coast could experience a sea level rise of more than 3 feet (0.9 meters) within the next half-century. The average elevation at Alligator River, where the red wolves currently reside, is approximately 3 feet (0.9 meters).

Williams, who works at the Woods Hole Coastal and Marine Science Center in Massachusetts, emphasizes the importance of factoring in this sea level rise when considering the red wolves’ future. He highlights that within fifty years, many of the habitat areas currently under consideration will likely be submerged due to rising sea levels or during storm surge events like hurricanes.

Consequently, the wolves will be forced to venture further inland, encroaching upon more densely populated areas. This will undoubtedly intensify their competition with what biologist Akin refers to as the true “apex predator” – Homo sapiens.

One of the prominent concerns in this area revolves around the potential impact of wolves on the game population, particularly white-tailed deer, which serves as the primary food source for Canis rufus. This apprehension stems from the belief that it would adversely affect the profits of landowners.

While obtaining precise figures for the recovery zone is challenging, the wildlife commission asserts that hunting contributed $1 billion statewide in the previous year.

Online listings for hunting leases indicate a wide range of prices, from $861 for a 22-acre property to $3,050 for 167 acres, boasting an environment that caters to the needs of deer. However, Sutherland, a dedicated individual, is determined to debunk the notion of a “wildlife disaster.”

Undeterred by snakes and the nuisance of brushing off ticks from his clothing and gear, Sutherland kneels beside a pine tree on the Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge, diligently drilling holes.

He proceeds to attach a wildlife camera about a foot up the trunk, securing it with a lock and cable. Using pruning shears, he clears any brush that could obstruct the camera’s view.

Sutherland explains that the kind of habitat created by the fire break is favored by the animals that wolves prey upon, such as rabbits, rats, deer, and various other species. His mission is to document whether this fire break is promoting a greater local abundance of these diverse wildlife species.

Regarding the wolf population, their numbers remain in a state of constant flux. In April, two litters of four pups each were born at Pocosin Lakes, followed by five pups at Alligator River in May.

Combined with recent releases of captive-bred adults and the fostering of pups, one might assume that the population is growing. However, as of August, the Fish and Wildlife department reported a known/collared wild population of 13, with a total estimated wild population ranging from 23 to 25. These figures represent a decline from June when the numbers stood at 16 and 32 to 34, respectively.

Ramona McGee, an attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center, the organization responsible for filing the lawsuit to restart the captive release program, acknowledges that although the population is trending in the right direction, it remains in a dire state.

Madison, a representative from Fish and Wildlife, concedes that there is still a long way to go in terms of red wolf recovery.

To mitigate human-caused deaths, Fish and Wildlife has implemented various initiatives, with gunshots being a primary concern. The wolves are outfitted with orange, reflective collars to enhance their visibility at night. Madison emphasizes that the general public and hunters should recognize that bright orange, known as hunter orange, signifies “Don’t shoot” and serves as a safety precaution.

Additionally, he reminds individuals at public meetings that intentionally killing an endangered wolf without it posing a threat to humans, pets, or livestock is illegal, and any such incident must be reported to Fish and Wildlife within 24 hours.

The agency actively engages landowners in trapping coyotes, with a preference for non-lethal methods. Madison asserts that killing coyotes will not solve the problem, and instead, they are sterilized while being left hormonally intact.

In this way, they can act as “placeholders” for the wolves, defending their territory for the remainder of their lives and preventing other coyotes from encroaching, although they cannot reproduce. To distinguish them from the wolves, these coyotes are fitted with white collars.

To reduce roadkill incidents, officials have installed flashing signs at both ends of the Alligator River preserve, cautioning motorists on US 64 to be mindful of endangered wolves and drive with care. However, the most significant obstacle to red wolf recovery is the issue of space.

Despite the combined 270,000 acres of federal land across the two refuges, equivalent to approximately 422 square miles, Madison explains that a single pack’s territory can span up to 80 square miles, depending on the availability of prey.

Consequently, there is insufficient public land within the historic range in the Southeast to fully support a viable red wolf population. Madison concludes that reintroduction efforts will inevitably rely to some extent on private land, which is where initiatives like Prey for the Pack come into play.

Approximately eight years ago, a retired Raleigh real estate developer embarked on a venture to construct a hunting and fishing sanctuary on 80 acres (32 hectares) of what he affectionately refers to as the “Hyde County thicket.” This dense expanse comprises a variety of vegetation, including sucker pines, loblolly pines, wax myrtles, and briers.

The developer vividly recalls his initial exploration, where he had to wield a machete to navigate through the overgrowth, contending with an abundance of snakes and mosquitoes.

Undeterred by these challenges, he enlisted the assistance of Lolies and his team, hoping to create an environment that would entice wolves.

As we traverse the woods on an all-terrain vehicle, he points out areas of scorched scrub and tree stumps, evidence of thinning and controlled burning. This process is expected to facilitate seed release and foster the growth of grasses and plants that would attract small mammals and game animals, ultimately serving as prey for a pack of wolves.

Already, new grasses and wildflowers are sprouting, while recently planted blackberry bushes are on the verge of bearing fruit. Along the main road, a white sign affixed to a tree proudly proclaims the developer’s membership in “Partners for Fish & Wildlife,” although he suspects his neighbors may not share his enthusiasm. In fact, a nearby resident named Lee Williams expresses disbelief at the government’s allocation of taxpayer funds to protect what he dismissively deems a “mongrel.” Williams, a retired state marine patrol officer in his seventies, confesses that he never encountered red wolves during his formative years and did not feel their absence.

He equates their presence to that of dinosaurs, asserting that he would not miss them. Tragically, shortly after a public meeting addressing the red wolf issue, a deceased red wolf was discovered near a fence line in the adjacent Washington County, having been shot in the torso.

Witnessing the animosity displayed during the gathering, the developer joined forces with another wolf advocate to devise a more compelling “sales pitch” to persuade fellow landowners.

Recognizing the need to overcome resistance to wolf recovery and assuage fears associated with participating in a government program, he emphasizes the importance of taking action rather than remaining idle. While he acknowledges that his 80 acres (32 hectares) represent a mere fraction of the overall effort required, he remains resolute in his commitment to assist in red wolf conservation.

He firmly believes that humans, not nature, bear the responsibility for the decline of the red wolf population and, consequently, it is incumbent upon them to aid in its restoration.