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The Naturalist's Corner: Death sentence?

Red wolf. creative commons photo Red wolf. creative commons photo

On June 27 U.S. Fish and Wildlife (F&W) announced a proposed rule many in the conservation forefront have deemed as basically a death sentence for any wild red wolves residing in eastern North Carolina. This would be the second time in recent history the red wolf has officially been declared extinct in the wild.

The Red Wolf was listed as endangered in 1967. Studies from the small remnant population residing in the wild in southwestern Louisiana and southeastern Texas revealed an alarming rate of hybridization with coyotes. When the Endangered Species Act became law in 1973, F&W began implementation of its Red Wolf Recovery Plan. F&W worked to capture the remaining red wolves along the Louisiana Texas border and start a captive breeding program using genetically pure red wolves. (A short aside here — there are some who question the genetic makeup of red wolves and research into that issue is ongoing, but after a 2012 review of the scientific literature on the subject F&W concluded the red wolf is a distinct species and it remains federally protected under the Endangered Species Act.) It was thought, by 1980, all red wolves had been removed from the wild and the red wolf was officially declared extinct in the wild.

F&W began to look for places and ways to reintroduce this keystone species into the wild. Attempts to reintroduce red wolves at Land Between the Lakes along the Tennessee-Kentucky border and in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park both failed. But efforts in the newly created (1984) Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge (ARNWR) in eastern North Carolina took a decidedly different turn.

The ARNWR wolves thrived and began producing viable litters. Unfortunately it seems success was a bad thing. The wolves, as healthy wild animals do, began to expand their range. And while they were welcomed on ARNWR and Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge, their forays onto private lands had disastrous results.

Between 2003 and 2011, despite supposedly being protected under the Endangered Species Act, 80 red wolves were killed by gunshot, decimating a wild population that had grown to nearly 200 animals.

It is estimated, today that somewhere between 35 to 50 wild red wolves remain in eastern North Carolina.

This new proposal from F&W reduces protected habitat for red wolves from more than a million acres to just ARNWR and Pocosin Lakes and area just over 200,000 acres. It also removes any official (like there was some before?) protection for wolves that stray from the refuges — they can be shot on sight.

There will be a public meeting regarding the proposed rule from 5:30 p.m. to 9 p.m. July 10 at Roanoke Festival Park in Manteo and a public comment period from June 28 till July 30. Information on how to comment can be found at regulations.gov under docket number FWS-R4-ES-2018-0035.

But one has to wonder what good a public comment period will be — results of the last public comment period from 2016 showed that 99 percent of responders — 54,992 out of 55,087 — supported the recovery of wild red wolves, and even 68.4 percent of comments from the current five-county region of the state where wild wolves are found supported the recovery. But comment, by all means.

The next installment of The Naturalist’s Corner – July 18 – will delve more deeply into the red wolf recovery efforts.

  (Don Hendershot is a naturalist and a writer who lives in Haywood County. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.)

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