ABOUT RED WOLVES
* The red wolf (Canis rufus) is mid-way in size between the gray wolf and the coyote. Red wolves weigh between 45 and 80 pounds, are about 5 feet long and stand 26 inches at the shoulder.
* Today, more than 100 red wolves roam in eastern North Carolina, and nearly 200 are kept in captive breeding facilities throughout the United States.
* The red wolf was listed in 1967 as endangered under the Endangered Species Preservation Act.
* Red wolves were first born in captivity in 1977 at Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium in Tacoma, Wash.
* The first litter of red wolf pups was born in the wild in 1988 at the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge in eastern North Carolina.
Source: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
"It would be a big neon sign saying, 'I'm a slower, weaker animal,'" said Taylor Berry, lead naturalist at the nature center on the side of Lookout Mountain. "In the wild, the name of the game is not to be weak."
If wolf pups are born in Chattanooga -- and the timing works perfectly -- they could be snuck into a wolf's den in North Carolina to be raised among the world's only wild, free-ranging population of red wolves, possibly North America's most endangered mammal.
Or not. The red wolf, which roamed the Southeast in great numbers before being pushed to near-extinction through hunting and habitat loss, could disappear again from the wild.
North Carolina's Wildlife Resources Commission wants the federal government to declare the red wolf extinct and end the animal's reintroduction in five low-lying counties in coastal eastern North Carolina.
Officials from the state commission, which regulates hunting and fishing, say the free-ranging red wolves reduce deer numbers, kill pets and livestock on private property and may not be genetically pure, since red wolves interbreed with coyotes.
"We have had numerous accounts of depredations on livestock and pets," wildlife commission spokesman Geoff Cantrell said.
Environmentalists have rallied to save the red wolf, saying the end of the reintroduction program could put the species' very existence in peril.
"That's what they would essentially be saying: This is a failure," said Jeremy Hooper, a University of Tennessee at Chattanooga biological and environmental sciences student who's doing a master's project on coyote-human interaction in the Atlanta area.
"It's a big deal. The only place they will exist is in captivity if they're removed from the wild," said Hooper, who previously cared for Chattanooga's wolves as a naturalist at the nature center.
He disputed the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission claim that the wolves compete for the same game as human hunters.
In fact, he said, hunting harvest figures show that hunters in North Carolina have taken more deer and turkey where the wild red wolves live, he said.
It may sound counterintuitive, but wolves can help deer populations by taking out the old, weak and sick, and by making them move around, preventing them from overgrazing in one spot. Ecologists call this movement the "ecology of fear," he said.
"The ecology of fear states ... they've always got to be on the move," Hooper said. "There's definitely benefits of having predators on the landscape."
One reason North Carolina landowners got upset, Hooper said, was because of a federal judge's recent ruling that banned shooting coyotes around the wolves. The two are so similar that wolves were being killed.
That ruling since has been modified to allow daytime hunting of coyotes on private land with a permit.
For years, Hooper said, there's been debate about whether red wolves are a distinct species. The red wolves in the recovery program are all descended from 14 wolves found in the wild whose DNA showed the least hybridization with coyotes.
The best way to keep the wild red wolf population going in North Carolina, Hooper said, would be to continue the current practice of releasing sterilized coyotes there. That way, if a wolf breeds with a sterile coyote, no pups result. Meanwhile, the number of wild red wolves should grow.
"On top of that, they have to limit mortality via hunting," Hooper said. "Which is a major problem: Red wolves keep getting killed."
Chattanooga's two pairs of breeding wolves live in fenced-in enclosures at the nature center. They've "tied," or mated, this year, according to UTC students who took turns observing them. But naturalists can't tell yet if the females got pregnant.
"We hope we have pups," Berry said. "You really don't know until the day before it happens."
Chattanooga wolf pups could grow up in the wild -- provided they're born at the same time as wolf pups in North Carolina to a mother wolf who has a small litter. Under those conditions, wolf pups from Chattanooga could be put in the wild wolf's den, so she could raise them.
"It's called cross-fostering," Berry said.
That hasn't happened since the red wolves first came to Chattanooga in the late 1990s.
A litter of five wolves was born in 2007 here, followed by a litter of two in 2011, but they all wound up in captivity.
One male red wolf from Chattanooga was released in 2008, Hooper said, to St. Vincent National Wildlife Refuge, an island in the Florida panhandle near the Apalachicola River. The wolf lived there until 2014, Hooper said, when the animal was relocated to a facility in New York after he and his companion wolf never reproduced.