Red Wolf's Last Stand

A pioneering effort to restore a species to the wild continues, even as floodwaters rise and scientists debate the animal’s genetic heritage.

It’s early November 2011 on North Carolina’s Outer Banks. The infamous Halloween Nor’easter that brought an early snowstorm farther north has blown down many a house. Now, days later, another nor’easter has snuck up on this flatline of beach. Along a row of stilt-legged homes, I set foot out of my car to see what the holdup is on Highway 12. Somewhere ahead the asphalt has cracked open under the weight of floodwaters. Sirens sound and the sheriff arrives to set up roadway barricades. Turning tail and heading for the mainland, he warns, is the only way out.

First stop off the Outer Banks is the 240-square-mile Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge, established in 1984 to preserve the area’s unusual pocosin, or shrub bog, habitat. Three years later it became the core site for reintroduction of the red wolf, a species officially extinct in the wild. The effort—a biological first—is succeeding, but precariously. The animals’ hold in the refuge is subject to a host of snares—hunters’ stray (and not-so-stray) bullets; the lethal threat of vehicles on roads and highways;the apathy, if not outright antipathy, of farmers; territorial infringement by and hybridization with coyotes; diseases, such as sarcoptic mange; and an uncertain genetic heritage. The nor’easter is a warning that a rise in sea level may further threaten their limited habitat.

David R. Rabon, coordinator of the United States Fish and Wildlife Service’s Red Wolf Recovery Program, is like the Route 12 storm sheriff come ashore. His job in five North Carolina “red wolf counties”—Dare and Hyde, where the refuge is located, and, to their west, Tyrrell, Washington, and Beaufort—is to protect the vulnerable wolf population. In the middle of the refuge lies the regularly targeted 72-square-mile Dare Bombing Range. One pack of red wolves dens nearby; to check on the pups in spring, biologists must approach on Sundays when the range isn’t “hot” (though usually only smoke bombs or dummy rounds are dropped).

The morning after the storm, Rabon and I meet in a parking lot at the refuge, quickly load gear into his jeep, and bump our way down a closed-to-the-public road where a red wolf pack is often glimpsed. Ahead is a day in the field with Rabon and other Alligator River biologists.

A pair of radio-collared red wolves: The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service monitors about a hundred red wolves in the wild. About twice that many are held in captive-breeding facilities across the country.

Barron Crawford/USFWS Photos

Shy shadows of forested bottomlands, red wolves (Canis rufus) were among the top predators throughout the southeastern U.S. Fossil and archaeological evidence shows that they ranged from the Atlantic and Gulf Coasts north to the Ohio River Valley, through central Pennsylvania and southern New England, and west to southern Missouri and central Texas. Court records from eastern North Carolina document the payment of red wolf bounties from 1768 to 1789; animal bounties in the American colonies in fact began with the red wolf more than a century earlier. “Aggressive predator control programs and clearing of forested habitat combined to bring the red wolf to the edge of extinction,” says Rabon.

Then hybrids of coyotes (C. latrans) and gray wolves (C. lupus) began to migrate from the western U.S. into southern and eastern states. Along the way, the canid social structures and territorial behavior that formerly minimized interbreeding between red wolves and coyotes were broken down. By 1970, the entire population of wild red wolves was believed to number roughly 400 animals, confined to a small area of coastal Texas and Louisiana. And how many of them were “pure” red wolves no one could say for sure.

In fact, the evolutionary history of red wolves is contro­versial. Some scientists believe they’re derived from a coy­ote-like ancestor in the New World that also gave rise to the Eastern, or Algonquin, wolf. That wolf is commonly classified as a gray wolf subspecies, C. lupus lycaon, but oth­ers would classify it as its own species, C. lycaon. According to geneticist Paul J. Wilson of Trent University in Peterborough, Ontario, the Eastern wolf belongs to an ancient lineage of wolves that existed some 750,000 years ago in the eastern half of North America. Scientists are comparing the Eastern wolf with the red wolf and finding that they may be each other’s nearest kin—or indeed the same species. One theory is that as Europeans settled eastern North America, they extirpated the red/Eastern wolf from the center of its range, leaving some animals to the south (red wolves) and some animals to the north (Eastern wolves).

The Eastern wolf is thriving in Algonquin Provincial Park in Ontario, Canada. A buffer zone around the park has been a great success, according to Brent R. Patterson, a wolf biologist with the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and Trent University. Mortality rates are down, the wolf population is remaining stable, and in general the wolves are not interbreeding with coyotes. “That a population of 200 wolves distrib­uted among thirty-five packs in Algonquin is of sufficient size to naturally exclude coyotes—and maintain its genetic integrity with minimal human intervention—indicates that there may be hope for red wolf recovery efforts,” observes Patterson.

Other scientists think the red wolf is a distinct North American species most closely aligned with gray wolves of Old World origin. Still others say it’s never been more than a hybrid of coyotes and gray wolves. One scientific group howls and soon another howls back.

Gray wolves, coyotes, and red wolves are all capable of inter­breeding; red wolves and coyotes often produce fertile hy­brid offspring. In the 1970s and1980s, when the few remaining red wolves had difficulty finding mates of their own species, they frequently mingled with the more abundant coyotes. That hybridization, says Rabon, was the final blow to the wild red wolves of the time. In the mid-1970s, when the intermingling was first dis­covered, a bold experiment was set in motion to bring in the few remaining wild red wolves and to breed them in captivity.

From 1974 to 1980, the 400-plus animals in the remnant population were rounded up and evaluated for red wolf characteristics. Only 17 “true” red wolves were identified. Of those, 14 were selected as founders to begin the red wolf captive breeding program, coordinated by the Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium in Tacoma, Washington. While C. rufus was declared extinct in the wild in 1980, some forty cooperating facilities across North America now partici­pate in the Red Wolf Species Survival Plan and are home to more than 200 captive red wolves.

A red wolf makes his way through the Alligator National Wildlife Refuge

Steve Hillebrand, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service/National Digital Library
In 1987 the first four captive-bred pairs were released in the Alligator River Refuge, and a year later wild-born pups were found in a den on the refuge. Since 2002, in a further experiment, pups born in captivity in zoos have been introduced into dens, where they are raised as wild offspring by their North Carolina stepparents. “It’s one of the most innovative things the Red Wolf Recovery Pro­gram has accomplished,” says biologist Dennis L. Murray of Trent University. Murray has conducted several studies of red wolf population dynamics. “We weren’t sure ‘fos­tering’ would work at first, but it has, and beautifully.”

Rabon estimates that there are now between 100 and 120 red wolves in the wild, more than 90 percent of them wild born. (That is down from the population high of about 130, reached two years ago.) The animals roam across more than 2,600 square miles of mixed public and private land in the five red wolf counties, a patchwork quilt of wildlife refuge, farms, townships, and highways.

The early November nor’easter has blown itself out. Rabon patrols the refuge roads, showing me the rounds. On one side are the loblolly pines common along the U.S. southeastern coastal plain; on the other are agri­cultural fields of corn, winter wheat, and soybean turned russet-gold under the clearing sky.

“The wolves love to run along the edges of these fields,” says Rabon. “It’s easier for them to do the same thing we do—move in open areas with fewer impediments. That’s also where they have a good chance of flushing deer, choice red wolf prey.”

Red wolves in the wild feed on a deer carcass

Barron Crawford/USFWS Photos

Red wolves take many deer, but, contrary to some farmers’ beliefs, do not eat cattle. In a study of “ecosystem services” and red wolf habitat conducted by scientists Randall A. Kramer and Aaron Jenkins of Duke University, local agricultural landhold­ers were asked about their level of support for red wolves. Negative opinions ranged from “Any red wolf program would need to be balanced relative to other wildlife” to “Bad for cattle, will shoot them.” Other respondents, however, welcomed the wolves “because I had to replant 25+ acres of soybeans due to deer predation,” or because “The red wolf is a beautiful animal and I enjoy seeing them now and then when I happen across one.” Another report showed that farmers appreciated the wolves’ control of raccoons and nutria.

A study of some 2,200 scat samples from red wolves in the Alligator River environs shows that their diet is about 50 percent white-tailed deer, 30 percent raccoons, and 20 percent small mammals such as rabbits and rodents. Zero percent is cattle: they’re too big for this relatively small wolf. One red wolf may eat two to five pounds of food each day, and will travel up to twenty miles in search of it.

Red wolves form packs of five to eight animals—an “alpha,” or breeding, pair and offspring from various years. “Sometimes we get lucky,” muses Rabon, “and glimpse a pack right along a refuge road.”

Something moves. Rabon picks up binoculars and scans tall grasses and mixed croplands. I hold my breath, hoping for a red wolf. But it’s a great blue heron, fishing in the low, wet channels that encircle the fields. We return to watching for the smallest movement. Soon reinforcements arrive in the form of three other refuge biologists: Art Beyer, Chris Lucash, and Ryan Nordsven.

Red wolves are mostly brown-and buff-colored with black along their backs. The ginger-red tint that gives them their name is behind their ears, on their muzzles, and along the backs of their legs. They’re smaller than gray wolves and larger than coyotes. Red wolves have tall, pointed ears, long legs, and large feet.

“Since coyotes are more and more common, it’s important for people to know how to tell them apart,” says Rabon. Adult coyotes weigh one-half to two-thirds as much as adult red wolves, stand some four inches shorter, and are less massive through the head, chest, legs, and feet.

Alligator River was chosen as the site for the 1987 red wolf restoration in part because it was free of coyotes. But by the mid-1990s, coyotes making their way eastward in ever greater numbers once again became a threat to red wolves. In 1999, the Red Wolf Recovery Program developed a zone-based “adaptive management plan” to help protect the wild red wolf population from hybridization. The scheme established zones where coy­otes are captured and sterilized, then returned as “place­holders” until a pair of breeding red wolves claims the territory. According to Murray, trying to halt hybridization using sterile placeholders has been another scientific first.

“So far,” says Rabon, “it seems to be working, but it takes constant vigilance. What people don’t realize is that when someone kills a coyote, it may be one of our sterilized animals, opening the area right back up to hybridization.”

Rabon and I, followed by Beyer, Lucash, and Nords­ven, off-road down a dirt track where the biologists hope to locate not a coyote but a wild red wolf. “We often pick them up in this brushy area,” says Lucash after we stop for a look, “especially along streams and other paths through the scrub.” By “pick them up,” Lucash means via a very high frequency radio antenna. Seventy-five adult red wolves have been captured and outfitted with transmitter collars.

Blips sound, but they’re very faint. “We have a wolf in the vicinity,” says Lucash, “but vicinity easily could mean a mile or more away. They can smell our scent and know we’re here much more easily than we can find them.” We look down. A fresh paw print is nearby on the bank of a creek. “Must have just missed him as he came through,” laments Beyer.

It’s better for the wolves that their paths and those of humans don’t cross—especially in autumn hunting season.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has instituted a “Please Don’t Shoot!” request for the red wolf five-county region. In counties just beyond that area, it recommends a “Look Before Shooting” stance. The Red Wolf Coalition, a North Carolina–based organization dedicated to the animals’ conservation, is distributing edu­cational materials to hunting and other groups. “We show them the clear difference between red wolves and coyotes,” says Cornelia N. Hutt, chairperson of the coalition’s board of directors.

Between 1987 and 2003, a total of twenty–eight red wolves were killed. From 2004 to the end of 2011, fif­ty–two were shot. The situation has become so serious that Rabon has ended the “Track the Pack” section of the project’s quarterly report that listed the wolves’ loca­tions. That space now says that “the U.S. Fish and Wild­life Service is investigating the suspected illegal take of several red wolves found dead in the [five-county] Red Wolf Recovery Area. . . . The red wolf is protected under the U.S. Endangered Species Act. The maximum criminal penalties for the unlawful taking of a red wolf are one year imprisonment and $100,000 fine.”

Most shootings happen during hunting season, when the sportsmen who are out and about may mistake a wolf for a coyote. In fact, however, in North Carolina it’s le­gal to kill a coyote during daylight hours at any time of year, so the hazard of mistaken identity is not confined to autumn. And now there’s a proposal to expand coy­ote hunting to nighttime hours, when distinguishing the two canids is even more difficult. Although other states allow coyote hunting after dark, they don’t have an endangered red wolf population in the same area, observes Hutt.

The situation is exacerbated, according to biologists Lisette P. Waits of the University of Idaho and Justin H. Bohling of Penn State University, when one half of a red wolf breeding pair is killed. Hybridization with a coyote is then more likely to occur.

Humans are not the only hazards. In May of 2011, wildfire raged through the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge. The peaty pocosin soil burns red-hot and smolders long. “Once a fire starts here, it’s often hard to put out,” says Rabon. The Pains Bay fire, as it came to be known for its point of origin, spread across tens of thousands of refuge acres. Then the fire jumped a highway and zeroed in on the Dare Bombing Range.

“The red wolves did the only thing they could,” says Rabon. “Hunkered down and waited it out.”

And in late August 2011, Hurricane Irene lashed the region with wind and rain, leaving red wolf territory under three feet of muddy water. Over the longer term, sea level along the North Carolina coast is likely to rise by at least one meter (39 inches) by 2100, believe Orrin Pilkey of Duke University and other climate scientists.

“We’re giving that serious thought,” says Rabon. “It was always planned that there would be more than one site where red wolves would be reintroduced.” Any new site is also likely to be somewhere in the southeast U.S., where red wolves historically roamed.

The safest place for a wolf in the five coun­ties may be the red wolf captive facility, a fenced, gated, locked series of enclosures tucked away in the loblolly pines of Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge. At any given time, a dozen or so red wolves live there, “pre­serving the genetic integrity of the species,” says Rabon. "It's our safety population."

The Sun begins to go down on this November af­ternoon. Parking just outside the encampment, Rabon quietly walks to the entrance and unlocks the gate. We walk through, relocking it behind us. There’s not a red wolf in sight.

“Look again,” says Rabon. Sure enough, among the autumn leaves littered on the ground of enclosure number one is the glint of a darker, more vibrant red: that of a red wolf curled up in a corner, fast asleep. But he’s not alone. Alongside rests his mate. The two red wolves, Rabon says, have been together for years. They’re an older pair, destined, perhaps, to serve as red wolf ambassadors in a new outdoor exhibit the refuge is building.

“They’re wonderful with people,” says Rabon, carefully unlocking the wire mesh enclosure. We step briefly inside. The wolves’ ears twitch, but otherwise they keep still. After a few minutes, two pairs of curious golden eyes meet mine. I follow the wolves’ lead and crouch down. Slowly, the animals stir from their shady corner. They watch my every move, then begin to step, then lope, then streak by, seeming to ham it up for the Homo sapiens they’ve temporarily allowed into their territory. Hardly the fearsome predators the species has been made out to be for so long.

Too soon, Rabon motions that it’s time to go. We close the inner door and make our way toward the outer en­trance. The wolves watch us, their noses pressed against the mesh. I walk backward through the piney woods, reluctant to break eye contact.

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