The hair stood up on the back his neck, more out of fear than anything else. His auburn fur blended with the dead leaves scattered throughout the 2-acre enclosure.
He was followed by three of his pups, and then their mother.
After a few minutes the pack of red wolves that arrived at the Endangered Wolf Center near Eureka on Thursday seemed to have become indistinguishable from the grass, leaves and tree bark of their new home, evidence that their ancestors had evolved right here in Missouri more than 150,000 years ago.
Red wolves once roamed from Missouri to Texas and east to Florida. But they were hunted to the brink of extinction. In fact, in 1980 they were declared extinct in the wild, but a captive breeding program ensured the survival of the species. Today, just over 50 red wolves exist in the wild in North Carolina’s Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge.
About 190 more live in breeding programs such as those at the Endangered Wolf Center. The center is part of the Species Survival Plan, a managed breeding program for endangered and threatened wildlife, made up of educators, scientists, governmental and nongovernmental agencies.
“This is a true American species,” said Regina Mossotti, the Endangered Wolf Center’s director of animal care and conservation. “One of the cool things about it is that the United States is the only country in the entire world that it’s native to. It’s our species. It’s our American icon, our national treasure. If we let it go extinct, it’s on our shoulders, nobody else’s.”
The wolves, which are the property of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, came to the center from the Niabi Zoo in Coal Valley, Ill., about 250 miles north of St. Louis, after it was determined that the center near Eureka had a facility large enough to house them.
The pack consists of four 6-month-old pups, a male and three females, along with their mom, 7-year-old Kai and dad, 10-year-old Paco. One of the pups was too frightened to leave its crate in front of a human audience, and had to be placed in a dark room so it could relax.
The hope is that Kai and Paco will produce more pups in the spring and that their siblings will help raise them in a way that will help them thrive in the wild.
But it’s not clear when the wolves could be reintroduced into the wild. As things stand, there is no where for them to go. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced in June it would stop reintroducing the wolves in the Alligator River Refuge. Some landowners claimed the wolves were killing too many deer and livestock. Also, some of them had bred with coyotes, prompting fears that the red wolf may not be able to survive as a distinct species.
A taxonomy debate has plagued red wolf reintroduction efforts for years. Some claim the animal is not a distinct species but a coyote hybrid.
But Mossotti said most of the fears surrounding the reintroduction effort in North Carolina were unfounded and that research proves the red wolf is in fact a distinct species.
Mossotti said that people who oppose wolf reintroduction have latched on to claims about the red wolf’s taxonomy and that the Fish and Wildlife Service has worked for 30 years to reintroduce the wolf back to the wild and would not have done so if it was hybrid.
William Waddell, the red wolf Species Survival Plan coordinator at the Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium in Tacoma, Wash., said there was evidence that red wolves had bred with eastern coyotes in North Carolina, but that wildlife officials had been sterilizing coyotes to keep them from reproducing with red wolves. That program has been effective, he said.
“It’s been used successfully for a number of years,” Waddell said.