In all the world there are only 45 or so red wolves alive in the wilderness.
All of them live in North Carolina.
Another 190 live in 40 captive breeding programs across the nation – including the N.C. Zoo, which keeps a pack for breeding purposes.
That’s it. You can’t get much more endangered than that. But according to some, the very agency that developed the program to save them has turned its back and is letting the wolves survive as best they can on their own.
The wolves, small cousins of the grey wolf that lives out west, live within a couple hours’ drive of New Bern, with about a dozen packs occupying 1.7 million acres across five counties: Hyde, Tyrrell, Washington, Beaufort and Dare. The area makes up the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge around the Mattamuskeet and Pongo lakes. But don’t be in a hurry to go find them: red wolves are reclusive and elusive.
And their numbers seem to be dropping fast.
You’ll have better luck taking the slightly longer trip to the North Carolina Zoo, where an older pair are kept on display for visitors.
Like other canids, red wolves once had a wide range with a habitat covering the entire East Coast and westward as far as Texas. As a testament to their former status, they are also referred to as the Florida or Mississippi Valley wolf.
Hunting and habitat loss whittled their numbers until, in 1973, the last known wild red wolves were captured in Texas and Louisiana to be the first of a breeding program to save the species. By 1980 they were declared extinct in the wild.
Various zoos and other organizations developed and bred the animals and in 1987 the first were turned loose in the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge.
Zookeeper Jessi Culbertson stated that the N.C. Zoo is an active partner in the breeding and fostering program, having a dozen red wolves of which most are kept out of sight from visitors.
For a time, Fish and Wildlife used wolf pups from the program, fostering them into other wolf families as a means of keeping the breed pure, and to help keep up the numbers, as red wolves tend to disappear by attrition, through illegal hunting, traffic kills, or disease.
The FWS stopped its fostering program in 2015, but prior to that the zoo provided several cubs. In fostering, an existing brood is found and a young pup is placed with them. The mother wolf usually has no problem with adopting and raising it as her own.
The zoo currently has one pup, born this past May, though it has not been displayed and will not likely be released to the wild.
She noted that the wild population is “critically endangered.” While she believes the animals can be kept from extinction, she doesn’t see their numbers rebounding in the future.
The wolves face a number of obstacles to survive.
The USF&WS keeps a website on its recovery program at www.fws.gov/redwolf/, on which it has a running tally of the wolf population and known yearly mortality rate.
The numbers it lists show a large decline from an estimated population of 90 – 110 wolves in 2013 (there were upwards of 187 in the ‘80s) to just 45 known wolves in 2016 (estimated population is between 45 and 60). Of those, at least 13 were shot and one poisoned, often mistaken for the non-native coyotes that have moved into the area.
In 2015, nine were found too late to determine a cause of death. Others have died from vehicle strikes (three), and another seven to what the site describes as “management-” and “non-management-related actions.”
Several groups believe that Fish & Wildlife is largely responsible for the decline and at least two organizations – the Center for Biological Diversity and the Animal Welfare Institute – have filed suits against the FWS for alleged negligence in protecting the species and for not following the laws as set down by the Endangered Species Act.
“The red wolf population has dropped by 50 percent over the past few years,” Brett Hartl of the Center for Biological Diversity said. “Most of that is willful abandonment of the program.”
He said that N.C. state officials have “pressured the feds to curtail it,” although he could not list specific examples. “There’s circumstantial evidence, but no smoking gun,” he said.
Much of the problem is a result of the stoppage of fostering, he said. Another danger to the wolves was when, in 2015, North Carolina legalized hunting coyotes at night.
While the wolf averages about 35 pounds heavier than the coyotes and has a redder coat, it is still easily confused with a coyote, especially at night.
“If they were standing side by side,” Culbertson noted, “I could tell them apart, but just to see one by itself, I wouldn’t be sure.”
Some wolves are also shot intentionally.
“It’s the Big Bad Wolf syndrome,” Culbertson said. “They have an unearned, bad reputation.”
Especially red wolves.
Tara Zuardo, a lawyer with the Animal Welfare Institute in Washington, DC, noted that studies show that, contrary to many people’s visions of wolves destroying livestock, they actually are helpful to them.
“Unlike grey wolves, they don’t kill livestock, they don’t kill pets, and they avoid humans,” she said. She noted that their diet of pests such as deer, nutria and raccoons actually helps agricultural businesses.
She stated that coyotes can be a problem, but “the saddest reality of it is, if (red wolves are) allowed to recover, they are the best defense against coyotes coming in.”
Many farmers realize this, she said, and encourage the program.
Zuardo spoke of her organization’s lawsuits against FWS, noting that the battle has had some victories but also a lot of defeats and delays.
Among the victories was convincing the state to put a moratorium on coyote hunting in the red wolf’s territory.
But in other areas the agency is dragging her feet, she said. It has cut the number of workers in red wolf management so that it is harder to keep track of why the wolves are dying. With the lack of workers “you have a lot of ‘I don’t know,’” she said. “By the time the bodies are found it’s too late to tell what killed them.”
FWS has also dropped rewards for the prosecution of poachers and has stopped its fostering program, leaving the wolves to do or die on their own.
Further endangering the population, she said, is the cross breeding with larger coyotes.
At one time coyotes were captured, neutered, and re-released, she said, controlling the population and keeping it from further breeding.
“They cut everything,” she said. “The only thing we know that they continue to do is GPS monitoring of these wolves so that, when they go on someone’s property they can go out and remove them.”
That is also ultimately harmful, she said, as the act of removing one wolf leaves its mate by itself, forcing it to mate with whatever is handy – namely, coyotes.
She said the NWS has told her the red wolf recovery program is basically on hold while a feasibility study is done to determine whether the program should be maintained, increased, or ended. “They keep saying six months,” she said of the study, “but then then six months go by and they say they need more time.”
She said she has no evidence as to why the program is neglected, other than budgeting concerns. She guesses that the traditional fear of wolves and the fear of loss of game is wearing the organization down. “Wildlife is invested in deer hunting and, from their perspective, it’s ‘Why do we have an animal on the land that is killing some of the deer?’ The state wants landowners to be able to shoot coyotes without getting a permit first, and endangered species also limit land use.”
A wildlife agent at the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge said he could not comment due to the lawsuits.