The tale of the red wolf and the coyote unfolded in Dr. Joe Poston's Conservation Biology class at Catawba College this fall. His students learned just how difficult it can be to conserve a species labeled "endangered," and just how interconnected different species are to one another.
Two field trips actually helped drive these classroom lessons home for the students. One took his students to the N.C. Zoological Park in Asheboro where red wolves are bred in captivity. The other had them traveling to the Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge (PLNWR) in northeastern North Carolina where red wolves have been reintroduced back into their historic habitat. At Pocosin Lakes, the students had an opportunity to meet and talk with a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service who has spent 26 years working on the red wolf project.
What Poston's students discovered was just how fragile and tenuous the lives of the red wolves are in their natural habitat. The wolves must compete against the coyote, a non-native species in North Carolina, for habitat and food, and sometimes, hybridization with coyotes can compromise the genetic integrity of the red wolf population.
Once found throughout the southeastern United States, the red wolf is now found only in five counties in northeastern North Carolina, with a population of around 100. The federal government designated the red wolf as endangered in 1967 and conservation efforts began. In 1987, red wolves were released into the first reintroduction site at Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge. Today, in addition to the red wolves in their North Carolina native habitat, over 200 red wolves are in captive breeding programs across the U.S.
"One thing we learned is when they breed the red wolves in captivity; they sneak into the den and snatch the babies. They then sneak these 'stolen' babies into the dens of red wolves in the wild," explained Erica Pippen, a student from Durham. "Those wild wolves think those babies are their own."
Then there's the problem of red wolves being mistaken for coyotes and killed by hunters or landowners.
"There's a big coyote problem," student Chris Koehler of Burlington noted. "Red wolves keep being mistaken for coyotes because they look so similar. It's legal to shoot a coyote in North Carolina, however it's illegal under federal law to shoot a red wolf. Some hunters or landowners say they thought they were shooting at a coyote when they actually shoot a red wolf." (Typically, this is a problem when young wolves are mistaken for coyotes.)
"And North Carolina does not recognize red wolves as endangered in the state," added student Eli Wittum of Cleveland, noting how the mistaken identity problem of wolves for coyotes is compounded.
"Some of the coyotes are sterilized to keep their population down and to allow the red wolves a chance to grow their numbers. Sometimes coyotes interbreed with red wolves and these are called 'coywolves' because they're hybrids," student Cara Marshall of Salisbury said.
Matt McConnell, a student from Salisbury, described how red wolves differ from coyotes: "Red wolves are much larger than coyotes. Coyotes will be more sketchy when they see humans, whereas wolves aren't afraid and will act more interested."
"Red wolves are important for the ecosystem," Koehler volunteered. "They've changed the way deer act. Instead of going out into the middle of a farmer's field to eat when there are no red wolves around, with wolves nearby, they'll hang near the tree line instead."
Poston's students did not actually see red wolves in the wild on their field trip to northeastern North Carolina, but they heard them. One morning right before dawn as they camped in Pettigrew State Park, they heard a pack of wolves howling in the distance.
"I thought I was hearing tundra swans that were nearby our campsite," Tabitha Turenchalk, a student from Sheffield Lake, Ohio, said. "They sound like howling wolves, so I just rolled back over and went to sleep."
The group did see one male red wolf brought in from its native habitat to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service station for medical treatment; it had a case of the mange on its face and muzzle, students said.
The Catawba students also saw four black bear, including one that came up very close to the group's van.
With a greater awareness of the challenges faced by conservation biologists, Poston's students wind down their fall semester with their individual thoughts of red wolves and coyotes.
"I have more respect for people who work in conservation biology," Marshall concluded. "Someone has to fight that battle and conservation is extremely important – it's more important and challenging than the average person realizes."
PHOTOS: Conservation Biology Class Takes Field Trip