Unless you work in wildlife conservation in eastern North Carolina, chances are you have not heard of – much less seen – a red wolf. With their russet-coloured coat and lean figures, these canids look more akin to coyotes than their gray wolf cousins and prey on small animals such as rabbits, rodents and raccoons.
Highly adaptive, they once roamed throughout the Eastern and South-Central US, being equally at home in dense forests, prairies and swamps. However, a combination of habitat loss and intensive hunting and predator control programs decimated the wild population not once, but twice since the start of the 20th century. As a result, the red wolf is the world’s most endangered species of wolf, with just 7 specimens living in a small area within the Albemarle-Pamlico Peninsula.
Decline and reintroduction
Even though the red wolf has been on list of species protected by the Endangered Species Preservation Act since 1973, and the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) spearheaded several captive-breeding and rewilding programs to boost population numbers between the 1970s and 1980s, the species was declared extinct in the wild in 1980. Thanks to a herculean effort by wildlife conservationists, wild red wolves were successfully reintroduced in the Alligator River national wildlife refuge in North Carolina during the 1980s and 1990s, leading to a peak population of 120 animals in 2012.
Despite this impressive achievement, in 2015, the USFWS abruptly halted their efforts to preserve the red wolf due to an internal review of the red wolf management program. Not only did they cease their successful captive breeding program, but they also stopped sterilising the local coyote population. Even though coyotes do not pose an immediate threat to red wolves in terms of competition for territory and resources, the two species do have a tendency to interbreed, which results in the dilution of the red wolf gene pool, and unchecked, this hybridisation would lead to the eventual disappearance of the red wolf as a distinct species.
In addition, human activity has played a significant role in the decline of wild red wolf numbers. Even though these animals are designated as “threatened with extinction” under the Endangered Species Preservation Act, the USFWS can issue permits to landowners to use lethal force to ‘take’ an animal that has threatened humans, livestock, or pets, if the USFWS has not been able to deal with the animal. These ‘take’ permits, combined with a lack of new wolves being introduced each year led to a catastrophic decline in population numbers within the space of 15 years.
Wildlife conservation groups concerned about the prospects of the red wolf have been trying since 2015 to get the USFWS to restart its efforts to save the wild population. The watershed moment came in January this year when the Southern Environmental Law Center, representing various environmental organizations, found success with the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina. The district judge not only found that the USFWS had flouted their duties to protect the red wolf, but also granted the plaintiff’s request for a preliminary injunction by ordering that the federal agency to halt any further capture and killing of wild animals, whether by agency staff or by landowners.
Thanks to the ruling, the USFWS released a revised management policy at the start of March. In addition, the agency has confirmed that they have resumed their captive breeding and release program, and have already released two wolves in February, with more releases planned for the summer months.
While conservation groups applauded the policy reversal, which will hopefully create a positive boost in population numbers, many commentators feel that the federal government should step up the pace of its reintroduction program, especially given that there are approximately 250 animals in zoos and wildlife refuges around the US.