By Joel Schlaudt '17
Students from Catawba College recently had an opportunity to take a trip to Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge to learn about the Red Wolf reintroduction efforts.
The Red Wolf (Canis rufus) has been a unique species in conservation efforts. It is recognized as the first animal to be successfully reintroduced after being declared extinct in the wild. Knowledge gained with these efforts have been successfully used in efforts to save other species. While at the educational facility, the question "Can the Red Wolf be recovered in the landscape?" was posed to the group of students by Kim Wheeler, the Executive Director of the Red Wolf Coalition.
In preparation for the trip, Dr. Joe Poston, an associate professor of Biology at Catawba, had his Conservation Biology class learn about Population Viability Analysis (PVA). This is a helpful tool used by conservationists to predict realistic viability for a population into the foreseeable future. Using this management technique, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), as well as other conservation groups, can help ensure a population's survival through their determined efforts. At the Pocosin Refunge, the Catawba students learned why these techniques are important, and why the wolves need to be protected.
Kim Wheeler explained how the PVA is used for the wolves. The PVA, along with extensive genetics mapping, determines which wolves get moved where, and also which wolves will get paired together to mate. Since all the Red Wolves originated from the few captured in the 1970s, the scientists must be careful not to pair individuals that are too closely related.
There has been a strong resistance to the Red Wolves being in N.C., yet they are protected. Currently the U.S. FWS is conducting an assessment on the species, looking at the issues of hybridization, gunshot mortality, taxonomy, as well as the human dimension.
Red Wolves once commonly resided throughout the east and southeastern United States, but were pushed to the brink of extinction by degradation of their habitat, as well as predator control programs. The Federal Government has protected the Red Wolves under the Endangered Species Act since 1967. By that time, their population numbers were already small. The last 17 wolves were captured in Louisiana, and taken to a facility in Washington State. Through successful breeding programs, there are over 200 in zoos, and around 50 have been reintroduced into the wild in northeastern North Carolina (NENC).
The first wolves were reintroduced into Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge in the late 1980s, as an experimental population. These eight wolves became established in the area. Two other experimental reintroduction sites were not as successful, and have since been abandoned.
At the time of reintroduction, there were no coyotes (Canis latrans) in the region. Coyotes were considered a western U.S. species. Without Red Wolves as predators in the area, in addition to human development, coyotes have rapidly spread east, reaching Alligator River in the early 1990s.
This became an issue for the reintroduction efforts because coyotes and Red Wolves will mate, and produce hybrid offspring. Until this time, interbreeding between these species had not been common. Under stress of small Red Wolf population, and limited recovery area, the result was hybridization. While the two species are evolutionally closely related, there are differences which make them different species. Red Wolves are larger, color patterns differ, and coyotes have narrower muzzles.
The U.S. FWS quickly added steps to minimize the hybridization threat to reintroduction efforts. It was found that sterilizing coyotes, as well as hybrids in the area, would provide a buffer to protect the wolves. These sterilized canids hold the territory, giving a reproductive advantage to the Red Wolves.
Wolves are predators. Any time humans are in the same area as other predators, there tends to be issues. To date, there have been no known attacks on humans by Red Wolves, but there has been a pushback from many of the residents of the five county area in N.C. where Red Wolves are found. The pushback is a result of the wolves' hunting patterns, as their diet consist of white tailed deer, as well as rodents and other small game. Hunters say that they do not see the same number of deer as they used to as a result of the wolves being present. In some ways, the hunters are right, there have been less sighting of deer in the area. However, deer are less likely to be in plain view of predators like wolves or coyotes. The deer are still there, but they are just better at hiding.
Along with hunters hunting deer, they enjoy hunting coyotes. Because coyotes and Red Wolves do look similar, gunshot mortality increased when coyotes arrived. For a short time, there was a temporary nighttime hunting ban on coyotes. In 2013, nine wolves were known to be killed by gunshot. The overall population has started to decline as a result.
The overarching question still remains: Can the Red Wolf be recovered in the landscape? The model for the Red Wolf reintroduction efforts were used for other species such as the Grey Wolf (Canis lupus). These efforts were highly successful largely due to the techniques learned in the Red Wolf efforts. The Red Wolf species, as well as the reintroduction, have been important to all endangered species conservation. Since the implementation of the Endangered Species Act there has never been a species that humans have given up efforts for their survival. If the Red Wolf reintroduction efforts are abandoned, a precedent will be set for giving up recovery efforts on an endangered species.