More Red Wolves Are Coming to the East Coast

More Red Wolves Are Coming to the East Coast

In early August, the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) reached a settlement with wildlife advocacy groups to reinstate a defunct red-wolf introduction program on North Carolina’s Albemarle Peninsula. The plaintiffs, collectively representing the Red Wolf Coalition, Defenders of Wildlife, and the Animal Welfare Institute, first brought the lawsuit on in 2020, alleging that the USFWS was violating the Endangered Species Act (ESA) by not pursuing active reintroduction and management actions for the species.

Conservation groups are toting the agreement as a landmark measure in the preservation of the species. “This settlement marks a new era for the red-wolf recovery program and guarantees action in the near term to give this species the best chance for long-term survival and recovery,” said Ben Prater, a program director with Defenders of Wildlife. “We now have a durable solution and an enduring commitment to wild red wolf conservation.”

Wildlife experts, however, are skeptical that the settlement will result in any meaningful change. “It doesn’t address the primary problem,” Dr. Mike Chamberlain, a researcher and red-wolf expert at the University of Georgia told MeatEater. “I could see it as a potential improvement, but what’s going to prevent a full recovery is gunshot mortalities,” he said, referring to the reason previous reintroduction attempts failed in North Carolina.

Those attempts can be first traced back to 1967 when red wolves were listed as “threatened with extinction.” The designation was further enshrined by the ESA in 1973. Still, in 1980, the wolf was declared extinct in the wild, but several captive populations remained in zoos and other breeding facilities.

Then, in 1986, the USFWS established a “non-essential” experimental population on the coast of North Carolina under rule 10(j) of the ESA. This rule allowed the feds to release the species into its historical natural habitat, but outside of its current existing range—which, at the time, was nonexistent.

The advantage of an experimental population was that the designation allowed for management actions to be taken. This was particularly important on the Albemarle Peninsula, where a patchwork of federal, state, and private land resulted in the wolves actively using agricultural lands as their home range.

The USFWS also took intensive management actions on coyotes to ensure the success of the program. These measures included a coyote-sterilization regimen to limit wolf-coyote hybridization. For over a decade in the early 2000s, biologists live-captured coyotes, sterilized them, and released them back into the wild.

You might be wondering, why didn’t biologists just kill the coyotes instead? According to Chamberlain, lethally removed coyotes would simply have been replaced by others. By sterilizing and then releasing the animals, biologists were ensuring the territory was still occupied, but by coyotes that no longer posed a hybridization threat. Listen to this MeatEater podcast episode on the issue for a deeper dive into the biology.

The reintroduction efforts were successful. “One thing that drove the recovery of this animal is that we had people on the ground who were working with private landowners and were dedicated to keeping wolves on the ground,” Chamberlain said. With tireless work, the program achieved a sustained population of over 100 animals and received ample public support.

Then the gunshot mortalities commenced. Chamberlain suspects they coincided with rhetoric related to killing coyotes, which was becoming an increasingly hot-button topic amongst deer hunters in the southeast at the time. Thanks to red wolves’ smaller stature, Chamberlain believes that a sizeable number of the mortalities were accidental on behalf of coyote hunters.

Regardless, the population collapsed as gunshot mortalities exceeded natural reproduction, and the USFWS eventually gave up reintroduction efforts entirely in 2015. The 2020 lawsuit brought on by conservation organizations was a response to this action, which the plaintiffs claimed was in violation of the ESA.

Under the resulting agreement, the USFWS is required to publish and implement annual red-wolf release plans for the next eight years. The plans also must include management actions such as coyote sterilization and reducing human-caused mortality. Plans will be released by Dec 1st each year, and include metrics for measuring success.

Still, the USFWS is calling on action from all stakeholders for the new program to prove fruitful. “The success of the Eastern North Carolina Red Wolf Population sets the stage for the Service’s ability to fulfill our responsibility to recover the species—which we cannot do without the local community and our conservation partners,” the agency told NPR in response to the settlement.

Chamberlain offers a similar warning but notes the temporary success of the previous reintroduction campaign: “The [former] red wolf program has been a case study in how successful something can be when people put their heads together and develop a plan,” he concludes. With any hope, the renewed efforts from the settlement will result in a recovery of red wolves in the southeast.

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