A federal program to bring back red wolves to North Carolina faces a challenge from landownersThese red wolf pups were born at the Western North Carolina Nature Center on May 1, 2005. It is one of more than 35 captive breeding centers for red wolves, which once roamed the Southeast but dwindled to only about 250 survivors in the wild.
Posted: Sunday, October 19, 2014The red wolf disappeared from North Carolina before the first shots of the Civil War. By mid-November, depending on a decision by the federal government, the wolves may be sent packing again. Officials with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will decide this fall whether a 27-year program aimed at returning the red wolf to the wild in the isolated swampland of eastern North Carolina will go forward.
Though the decision will be made within a month, no action will be taken before early 2015.
The Red Wolf Recovery Program has been praised as an innovative attempt to do something man has never done before - return a species that is extinct in the wild to its original habitat. The program also has been denounced as a money pit and an example of government trampling the rights of private landowners.
Opinions have split the Albemarle Peninsula, a marshy thumb of land home to fewer than 5,000 people and 100 monitored wolves. "There is a lot of support for the program there, and a lot of support against it," said Leopoldo Miranda, assistant director for ecological services in the Fish and Wildlife Service's southeast region. His department is overseeing a systemic review of the program.
"At the end of the evaluation project, we will have three options: maintain the program as it is, modify it or terminate it," Miranda said. "Whichever decision is made, it will be difficult, and there will be ramifications.
"There is no easy solution, and the way things are, no one solution will make everyone happy."
Even vocal landowners such as John "Jett" Ferebee admit they still get a chill hearing the twilight howl of wolves across the lowland forests. Ferebee, who owns about 1,000 acres in Washington County, has been an uneasy neighbor to the recovery program since it began in 1987. And, he insists, his beef is not with the wolves - it never has been. "No one wants to go out and kill all the wolves," he said. "But it's so frustrating to see something that had such a noble beginning become twisted into what we have today.
"The passion of those who began this program to restore a species to the wild was admirable," Ferebee said. "But it has become an effort to destroy the rights of private landowners. I'm sorry to sound so frustrated, but I'm a black-and-white sort of guy. Either something is legal, or it's not. And for years, what they have been doing in relation to private property rights here is illegal. "Now they have letters from more than 500 landowners asking them to remove wolves from their property. It is what they promised they would do when all this began. We intend to hold them to it, even if they don't want to do it."
Miranda acknowledged the complaints from hundreds of property owners, though he says support for the program remains strong in the Albemarle region. "One thing that has always been important from the beginning is that private landowner support is essential," Miranda said. "We're trying to do our best to meet the concerns while giving the wolves the best chance of survival. "The wolves wander. It's what wolves do."
Or what they used to do, anyway. When the first European settlers sailed up the Cape Fear River, red wolves had been here for thousands of years. Canis rufus once considered everything from southern New York to central Texas home. Experts believe up to 25 states were once part of the animal's range.
By 1970, that range was a small pocket of remote brush along the Texas-Louisiana state line. A combination of hunting, deforestation and competition from other predators dwindled the population to 14 genetically solid adults.
Wildlife officials rounded them up and placed them in refuges. This essentially made the wild wolf extinct. In 1976, a program of captive breeding began to slowly rebuild the wolf population. Once the captive population was considered secure, officials began a more ambitious project - reintroducing the wolves to the wild.
A possible location in the same area the wolves came from was rejected because of crowding. Not by humans, but coyotes. A cousin of the red wolf, the coyote had become the biggest threat to keeping the red wolf species alive. In addition to competing for food sources, coyotes and red wolves can, and often do, interbreed. Without keeping the species separate, the small wolf population would be absorbed by coyotes.
So, officials began searching for a spot in the traditional red wolf range that was not home to their canine cousins. In 1987, they settled on the Alligator National Wildlife Refuge in remote northeastern North Carolina. With an area of nearly 260,000 acres - about the size of Hoke County - and scant human population, officials argued that the wolves should be able to thrive.
They were, and still are, deemed "experimental, nonessential" populations. This allowed officials more leeway in controlling the wolves should they threaten livestock or property. Five years later, results were encouraging enough to try a second "seed population." A second release site, deep in the Smoky Mountains, failed miserably. Young pups died from disease, and some of the parents wandered away. The program was shut down in 1998.
On the Albemarle Peninsula, some landowners were reluctant from the start. What if the wolves got too close to homes or livestock? What if they became a nuisance or danger? Wildlife officials assured landowners the wolves would not be likely to stray onto their land. If they did, a call to the recovery center would bring a trained officer, who would trap the animal and take it back to the reserve.
If the animal was troublesome, a remote-control "capture collar" equipped with a tranquilizer would be detonated, knocking the canine out.
Officials quickly discovered two things: The wolves wandered far more than originally anticipated, and the collars were not designed to endure the harsh salty conditions along the Carolina coast.
Landowners such a Ferebee claim the promises to recapture wolves quickly on private property have been forgotten. They wonder if it had not been the plan all along to let the wolves reclaim the peninsula.
More than 25 years later, the wolf population has grown more than tenfold. Miranda says the estimated population is now "right about 100 wolves" with a range of more than 1.7 million acres - larger than Cumberland, Hoke and Moore counties combined.
In addition, large parts of the protected land were flooded for waterfowl habitation. That forced the wolves to seek different hunting land. Human interaction, while rare, was inevitable. There are no reports of wolf attacks on humans and few on livestock, mainly poultry. But they do attack and eat white-tail deer. Wildlife studies indicated nearly half of their diet is deer. Hopes that they would develop an appetite for nutria, the "super-rats" of the region, seem to have been overly optimistic. Still, 100 wolves should scarcely have an effect on deer population.
Each year, Miranda notes, the wolf population suffers an average death rate of 14 to 18 percent. About half of those deaths are human related, and a fourth are from gunshots. "None of those wolves would have died if they had kept them on public land," Ferebee said. He added that surveys released under a Freedom of Information Act request revealed that many of the wolf captured on private land were then released on neighboring private land rather than returned to the preserve.
Wildlife officials contend that the wolf population has a minimal impact on private land and that they rely on the cooperation of private landowners for the repopulation effort to succeed. Still, the biggest threat to the wolf's long-term survival is not man or bullets. It's his canine cousin.
When the restoration colony was set up in the 1980s, coyotes were nowhere to be seen. By the late '90s, there were far more coyotes than wolves on the Albemarle Peninsula, threatening to overwhelm the population. They rolled through the Carolinas like a canine Sherman's army, and recovery program officials now consider hybridization with coyotes as the biggest threat to the wolf's future.
"They just moved in," Miranda said.
Compounding landowner frustrations is a ban on hunting coyotes in the red wolf range, for fear of accidentally shooting a wolf. Several wildlife groups joined to file suit to ban the hunts, which was approved by a judge this spring. "That means they know the wolves and coyotes are running together," Ferebee said. "Now they're out there breeding super-coyotes, and I can't hunt them to protect what's left of the wildlife on my property. "I promise you, this will go down as one of the - no, as the single greatest disaster of the wildlife service."
To counter the coyote influx, wildlife officials are attempting a "placeholder" policy. Established coyotes are captured and sterilized, then released. In theory, these canines will hold territory, while unable to breed. When suitable red wolf pairs are ready, the coyote is removed and the wolves take over. "No one has come across these challenges before," Miranda said. "This is a first. Everything is a first. We're learning every time we do something."
What has been learned, both good and bad, will go into future red wolf repopulation efforts. After a series of internal decisions, Miranda said he expects the evaluation results to be made public in early 2015.
He pointed to the 20-year gray wolf recovery program at Yellowstone National Park. Wolf populations there have topped 1,000 adults, proving reintroduction can be successful. Miranda also said two future sites will be determined, no matter what the outcome of the North Carolina program review. "The goal of the red wolf recovery program was 220 animals in three separate populations," he said. "We still have to find at least two other viable locations. If this program is ended, we'll have to find a third, as well."
Are there any possible spots in mind? "If I knew of any, I would tell you," Miranda said.
Public response has been overwhelming on both sides of the issue, he said. His staff continues to comb through more than 47,000 responses collected during a public comment appeal in August and September, as well as remarks from public hearings in eastern North Carolina, seeking helpful suggestions. "This will not be a beauty contest," he said. "The side with the most votes isn't promised a win. Many options are on the table."
If the plug is pulled at Albemarle Peninsula, after 27 years and about $30million, the wolves would be rounded up and placed in preserves, awaiting a new home. The same action was taken when the Smoky Mountain program ended. "We would not leave them behind," Miranda said. "Whatever the case, we still have our captive population to populate a new area."
Ferebee admits there would be a sadness in seeing the wolves go. But, he quickly adds, he feels the program cannot be salvaged. "At some point, (the Fish and Wildlife Service) has become unwelcome," he said. "The program needs to be dismantled. It is a failed experiment."