US Wildlife Officials Continue Protection for Critically Endangered Red Wolves; Will Maintain Aggressive Recovery Programs

The US Fish and Wildlife Service has decided not to reduce the protected habitat of the North Carolina red wolf, possibly as few as 14 individuals. and it will continue to assist captive breeding and efforts to curtail incursions by coyotes moving into the area, according to news reports.

Red wolf pups such as these at the North Carolina Zoo are essential to the survival of the species as efforts at captive breeding and reingtroduction continue.

The decision also brings attention to key questions such as “What exactly is a red wolf?” and “How far should federal agencies go in conserving endangered species and reintroducing them to the wild?” The decision to continue the protections is part of an ongoing legal battle with conservation groups who contend that red wolves are a separate species and that cutting back protection would violate the federal Endangered Species Act.

The remaining wolves are confined to the Albemarle Peninsula, which also has the distinction of being rural enough to boast the darkest night time skies on the East Coast, According to the North Carolina State University:

“The Albemarle-Pamlico Peninsula (APP) in eastern North Carolina is a 6000 square kilometer rural landscape comprised mostly of forested wetlands, herbaceous wetlands, upland pine forests, row-crop agriculture, and blackwater creeks.  The peninsula is surrounded by the second largest estuarine complex in North America, which is buffered from the Atlantic Ocean by a chain of barrier islands. Though >50% of the peninsula is comprised of wetlands, the extant freshwater and brackish wetlands are only a small remnant of the historical wetlands existing prior to timber extraction in the 19th and 20th centuries and large-scale conversion to agriculture beginning in the 1970s.”

The federal decision reverses a 2018 change in policy that would have reduced the protected wolf habitat from 5 counties to two and would have allowed landowners increased ability to shoot wolves who strayed out of the protected zone. Some argue the wolves are simply coyote hybrids and deserves no protection.

The decision returns Fish and Wildilfe to a more activist conservation role, and although hailed by many conservation groups, is still criticized for not going far enough.

A collared red wolf struggles to survive

Genetic science may also have come to the wolves aid just in time. The wolves were common in much of the eastern United States into the 19th century. In size they fall between gray wolves (canis lupus) and coyotes (canis latrans). Like all American wolves they were hunted without mercy. Their numbers plummeted and in 1980 they were declared extinct in the wild. A handful of purebred red wolves were captured and became the stock for a captive breeding program. Critics have contended that they were nothing more than coyote hybrids, because they can breed with coyotes. But a new study seems to have settled the issue. Although the three are related and share DNA, the panel of scientists says there is enough distinct DNA in the red wolves to show they are a distinct species from coyotes and gray wolves.

Captive breeding is key to the future. The current population of red wolves has dropped from over 150 to the current 14 or so. Car crashes, illegal killings and inbreeding with coyotes are some of the reasons. Increased protection should help with efforts and there is talk of capturing and relocating or sterilizing coyotes in the area.

The federal agencies are not the only groups Involved. The Red Wolf Coalition is an active partner in conservation efforts and list the following sites as captive breeding centers:

“Without a managed captive breeding program, the red wolf would have continued its rapid slide to oblivion. But the Species Survival Program (SSP), established by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) in 1981, designated three facilities to cooperate in conserving this rare species of wolf. All red wolves are descended from just 14 founders. Thus, today, 44 approved zoos and wildlife centers throughout the U.S. manage the red wolf population as a genetic reservoir. While the need to infuse the wild population with more adult wolves has diminished as wild red wolves continue to reproduce successfully, these SSP facilities support interactive management with the USFWS Red Wolf Recovery Program by developing innovative techniques such as cross-fostering pups from SSP facilities to wild litters, allowing wild red wolves raise the pups with their own wild-born offspring. Additionally, the SSP facilities coordinate research in genome banking, assisted reproduction, behavior studies and veterinary medicine. 

The story of the red wolves shows how much can be done when humans seek to save a population of wild animals and cooperate in the effort.

Published by ursusrising

long time writer and editor living in Los Angeles

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