Red wolves are on the precipice - we can either turn a blind eye to their plight and they will fade into extinction or we can double down, jumping in with both feet to recommit to their conservation and recovery. To stop the extinction of this all-American wolf is going to require a conscious decision to turn things around, but we’ve done it before and we know it can be done again.
We know adaptive management can work because after eradication, reintroduction and a few years of conscious effort by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) and the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission (NCWRC), the wild population was up to around 130 in 2014. However, we rested on our laurels and soon after, misinformation, agency interference and complacency got the better of the population. Now there are fewer than 20.
Making a difference for this species will require significant resources and creative problem-solving approaches led by federal and state wildlife agencies, but there is a three-pronged approach that can save the red wolf. Without all these pieces working in harmony, however, the red wolf cannot be expected to survive.
The first thing that needs to happen is to release more wolves into the recovery area in North Carolina. This population is in dire need of reinforcements to form packs, deter coyotes and reproduce enough to create a sustainable next generation.
FWS biologists spent much of December and January in the field, working to trap the wolves for “matchmaking.” These wolves originated from three separate wildlife refuges: Alligator River NWR and Pocosin Lakes NWR in northeastern North Carolina, and St. Vincent NWR in Florida. St. Vincent is one of the few remaining propogation islands - coastal wildlife refuges used to release captive wolves so that they may safely learn to live in the “wild” without human help.
While the original plan was to capture enough wolves for three new breeding pairs, some remained too elusive for traps. Nonetheless, the recovery team adapted to their challenges and two new red wolf pairs were created – a male wolf from St. Vincent was paired with a female from Alligator River, and a male from Alligator River was paired with a female from Pocosin Lakes. The pairs were first released into acclimation pens donated by Defenders of Wildlife, where they were able to spend a few weeks getting to know each other before release. After a holding period, the wolf pairs were freed from the acclimation pens with the hope that they would remain together and breed.
Despite these efforts, however, the pairings have not resulted in wild litters in 2020. FWS plans to continue moving wolves through the pipeline from the Species Survival Program (SSP) facilities to propagation island, and on to North Carolina refuges – but wolf “supply” is limited on St. Vincent as well. Another struggle for the recovery effort is the diminishing physical capacity of SSP partners. These facilities are spread across the country and contribute greatly to the recovery of red wolves by housing and breeding captive red wolves. Because wolf releases have been halted in the North Carolina recovery area for years, SSP facilities now must decide how to house and care for the growing number of wolves in their care – wolves who were never meant to spend the entirety of their lives in captivity.
Releasing red wolves into the wild is not something that can wait years to finally restart. With less than 20 red wolves on the ground in North Carolina, and no successful wild litters for two years, time is of the essence if the species is going to recover here and beyond.
Cross-fostering is another successful and necessary strategy for getting more red wolves into the wild. This adaptive management tool involves wildlife biologists introducing infant pups from one litter – either pups born in captivity or wild-born pups – into a wild litter with an experienced mom. The hope is that the surrogate mom will then raise the pups as her own. Since 2014, there have been 32 successfully cross-fostered Mexican gray wolf pups, and in the past this strategy has been used successfully for red wolves as well.
This recovery technique is incredibly beneficial because it increases litter size and allows captive-born pups to be reared in the wild and taught to survive by wild parents, which greatly increases the likelihood they will make it to adulthood. Fostered pups also carry unrelated genetic material that will help keep the small, wild population diverse and healthy.
New Recovery Areas and Propagation Islands
The original recovery plan for the red wolf, which was written back when the species was one of the first species to be listed under the Endangered Species Act, called for at least 220 individual wolves across the three distinct, viable, self-sustaining populations and 330 in captivity. Fifty years later, it is past time to look for additional reintroduction sites and propagation islands where wolves can acclimate to living in the wild.
The experimental population in Great Smoky Mountains National Park did not have enough prey and fell victim to parvovirus, but there are other potential options around the Southeast for reintroduction. As mentioned above, the available resources on the current propagation island, St. Vincent, are limited – therefore, in addition to new recovery areas, FWS must seek to identify additional refuges that can serve as a safe “wilding” environment for wolves as they move from captive-breeding facilities to recovery areas.
Making the Leap
The road to recovery for the red wolf has been anything but smooth. From eradication to the point of having around 130 in the wild took decades and tremendous commitment from FWS, NCWRC, partners in the SSP program, community members and non-profits like Defenders. But if we are to restore this all-American wolf to eastern North Carolina and its range across the Southeast, we need to bring back this all-hands-on-deck approach to conservation.
Defenders will continue to fight for the future of the red wolf for as long as it takes. By protecting this apex predator in its native home, we are preserving our natural heritage, improving habitat and promoting recovery for literally hundreds of species throughout this biologically rich region.