Saving the Red Wolf
Coyotes and poaching threaten the only U.S. red wolf population, but NWF and its North Carolina affiliate are helping to save them
Roger Di Silvestro
SINCE THE BEGINNING OF 2013, at least 11 endangered red wolves have died from gunshots in North Carolina, accounting for about 10 percent of the species’ entire wild population. Authorities investigating the deaths found one wolf wrapped in a plastic bag, its radio collar removed. In another case, they found only a severed collar in a farm field. These shootings represent an escalation of such killing in recent years and a major challenge for those working on red wolf recovery.
A Rare Species
Once inhabiting the southeastern United States and possibly even north into Pennsylvania, the red wolf is closely related to the coyote and the Algonquin wolf of eastern Canada. Red wolves weigh 50 to 85 pounds—about twice the size of a coyote—and measure about 26 inches tall at the shoulder. They mate for life and live in family packs typically composed of five to eight animals that range across an area of 25 to 50 square miles. In North Carolina they usually feed on deer, raccoons, rabbits and various rodents. Older pups help raise younger siblings and leave the pack when two or three years old, seeking territories and mates.
The red wolf is North America’s rarest wild canine, though not as rare as it was 40 years ago. By the 1970s, predator-control programs and habitat degradation had reduced the species to a remnant population in coastal Texas and Louisiana, where it was facing extinction from interbreeding with coyotes. As part of a recovery program, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) biologists took every surviving pure-blooded red wolf into captivity, a total of only 17 animals, and in 1980 declared the species extinct in the wild. Fourteen of the captives became the ancestors of all red wolves alive today—about 200 in captive-breeding facilities at some 40 sites around the nation and roughly 100 wild in North Carolina.
FWS biologists brought the last red wolves into captivity with the intention of reintroducing them into native habitat once a sufficient number had been bred. North Carolina’s Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge became the first release site with the introduction of four male-female pairs in 1987. The species now ranges across three national wildlife refuges, a Department of Defense bombing range, state-administered lands and private property, all in the northeastern part of the state, for a total of 1.7 million acres—an area slightly larger than the state of Delaware and nearly the size of Yellowstone National Park. “Against the longest of odds, the red wolf again roams the wild lands of eastern North Carolina,” says Tim Gestwicki, chief executive officer for the North Carolina Wildlife Federation (NCWF), an NWF affiliate that has aided the reintroduction program since its inception. Private lands serve as an important component because they are home to more than half the wolves. “There are many stewardship-oriented landowners who have been supportive of the red wolf program,” Gestwicki says.
The released animals (such as the one above) are designated as an experimental population, meaning that landowners can use nonlethal harassment to drive wolves from their land and can legally kill a wolf that attacks a person or property. Anyone killing a wolf is required by law to contact FWS within 24 hours, though no penalties are levied. Typically, says David Rabon, FWS recovery coordinator for the red wolf, “illegal kill” for this species refers to an animal taken without alerting authorities, its body perhaps disposed of in a way that suggests an attempt to cover up the death. Of the nine Rabon says were shot in 2013, only two were reported.
During the 27 years since wolf reintroduction, the animals have given landowners little cause for hostility. FWS has documented only about a dozen confirmed cases of pet or livestock depredation by a red wolf, Rabon says, partly because few livestock operations exist in the area. When depredations do occur, they usually are the work of coyotes, dogs or bears. “It’s rarely a wolf that’s doing something that would cause a complaint,” Rabon says. “We’ve been very lucky.” FWS has paid for stock lost to predators, even if evidence does not show definitively that a wolf was the culprit.
If their numbers increase, the wolves are likely to have positive impacts on local ecology, preying on crop-damaging species such as raccoons, deer and nutria—large South American rodents, introduced into the United States by the fur trade, that damage wetlands as well as farm crops. “The reality is that we have a huge northeastern North Carolina deer population that is damaging to crops,” Gestwicki says. Deer in the state consume about $30 million in crops yearly.
Although wolves take some deer, which could benefit local farmers, at present “the dent the wolves put in the deer population is fairly negligible,” he says. “Balancing wildlife and agribusiness is an ongoing matter.” Some farmers have reported that the wolves may be influencing deer behavior by limiting the amount of time deer spend in agricultural fields eating crops, Rabon says. FWS is partnering with the North Carolina Wildlife Resource Commission to explore predator-prey impacts.
Living in the Bull's-Eye
One of the most serious threats to red wolves is interbreeding with their look-alike relative, the coyote. All members of the genus Canis, which includes wolves, coyotes and domestic dogs, have a potential for interbreeding, Rabon says, though geographic or behavioral factors usually limit it. When red wolves were first restored in North Carolina, no coyotes were found there. But in the wake of habitat change and the extinction of wolves, both gray and red, across most of the United States, coyotes have been expanding out of their native West. They began showing up regularly in North Carolina in the 1980s. When unable to find mates of their own kind, red wolves, which typically kill or expel coyotes, will mate with them.
To keep the species from interbreeding in North Carolina, FWS has adopted a strategy that involves capturing coyotes, sterilizing them, and turning them loose. The animals establish territories and keep out rivals but cannot breed with each other or with wolves. If red wolves need a territory, they can take it from the smaller canines. This program, which presently involves about 60 coyotes, benefits the wolves as well as farmers who fear coyote depredations because sterile older coyotes with stable territories are less likely to prey on domestic animals than are younger newcomers and those with pups to feed.
Another factor potentially affecting wolves is North Carolina’s coyote hunting season, which runs year-round without limit, day or night. Red wolves can be mistaken easily for trophy-size coyotes, which is why the Southern Environmental Law Center, a private organization, is suing to stop the hunt in the red wolf recovery area. Noting that coyotes are “impossible to distinguish from red wolves in the wild,” Sierra Weaver, a law center attorney, believes the state needs to collect more information on coyotes and wolves killed in the recovery area and to implement “a more targeted approach to dealing with nuisance animals.” A court order last May stopped coyote hunting in the five counties at the heart of red wolf recovery and will remain in effect until a full trial can be completed.
Red wolf mortality from gunshots has been rising in recent years. From 2002 through 2005, 17 red wolves were reported killed by gunshot, Rabon says, an average of four yearly. In 2012, gunshots accounted for eight deaths, and in 2013 for nine. Rabon suspects that the uptick may result in part from the recent opening of large farms to hunters outside the local area who don’t know about the red wolf and mistake the animals for coyotes.
The complete impact of the shootings on wolf recovery is unknown. “We can’t definitively say that the current amount of mortality is causing a decline in the population, but over a short period of time we’re certainly seeing a decline in the number of breeding pairs and litters born each year,” Rabon says. Known mortality from all causes has averaged nearly 20 wolves annually during the past five years. About 40 pups were born in the wild yearly from 2009 to 2012, but in 2013 the number dropped to 34 for reasons yet unknown. “If something doesn’t change, I don’t believe this small population of wolves is sustainable with the current levels of mortality and recruitment,” Rabon says.
To help prosecute cases of red wolf poaching, NWF and NCWF have contributed to a $33,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of poachers. “This species is truly a national treasure, and we hope that with NWF’s pledge, someone with knowledge of these attacks will finally come forward and break the silence,” says John Kostyack, NWF’s vice president for wildlife conservation. Gestwicki agrees: “If the wolf is to survive and have even a chance to thrive, it will be because Americans everywhere refuse to stand for the illegal killing of an endangered species.”
A Howling Good Time
Red wolves have become popular with visitors to North Carolina’s Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge, attracting tourists who participate in wolf howls held weekly from June through August and on certain days the rest of year. Refuge personnel take visitors into the field and howl like wolves. The wolves usually respond with their haunting calls. For more information, visit www.fws.gov/alligatorriver.
NWF in Action: Safeguarding Predators
Once extinct in the wild, the red wolf today roams 1.7 million acres in North Carolina (orange area on map). NWF and its affiliate, the North Carolina Wildlife Federation, have supported red wolf reintroduction since the 1980s and over the years have helped fund rewards for information about poachers.
NWF also has served as an advocate for other predator species, working on behalf of grizzly bear conservation in Yellowstone and Glacier national parks, for the protection of eagles and other raptors nationwide and for restoration of wolves to Yellowstone. NWF also has been a key participant in efforts to maintain habitat for the endangered Florida panther as well as for black-footed ferrets, orcas and other predators. For more information, go to www.nwf.org/what-we-do and www.ncwf.org.
Roger Di Silvestro is a National Wildlife senior editor with a lifelong interest in wolves.