By Greg McNamara, Defenders of Wildlife Supporter, Charlotte, NC
4:30 am: My phone alarm only goes off once, and I’m wide awake from excitement. Today’s the day. I’m in Manteo, North Carolina. In 25 years of living in North Carolina, I’ve never heard of this town nor Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge or Columbia, but now they hold a very special place in my heart. Wild red wolves, the most endangered wolf species on the planet, live here and I may very well see them in person today.
I am not alone in my seemingly random adventure on a Monday morning, using a vacation day from work. It is a motley crew of three, none of whom had met in person until the night before. Our shared love for these red wolves and the natural world brings us together. The group includes our passionate and fearless leader from Defenders of Wildlife, Heather Clarkson, Southeast program outreach representative, Dr. Jessie Williams, a dedicated conservationist and wildlife photographer, and me. One may wonder, why I am along for this trip? Is it my credentials as a financial services management consultant? Nope. The answer is that I am an average citizen, concerned about our environmental well-being, the natural world, conservation and wildlife. More specifically, I’ve become passionate for the once native and now only wild population of red wolves in the world. And they live in my home state.
A few years ago, I became more than interested in the plight of the red wolves in North Carolina. There were several news articles (if you knew where to look for them) about legal proceedings and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the federal agency tasked with the management of red wolves in the recovery area. The red wolf population had quickly decreased to fewer than 10, many due to gunshot mortality. I asked myself, “how do more people not know about this?” And, “if these animals are under the protection of the Endangered Species Act, why isn’t there more being done to protect them?” I wanted to get involved, although I didn’t know how. I called local zoos and red wolf ally organizations, which encouraged me to check out Defenders of Wildlife.
After a couple of years of donating to Defenders of Wildlife and writing to politicians, there came an opportunity for me to speak with the dedicated and talented professionals within Defenders. They allowed me an opportunity to get involved in a more direct way. It has opened my eyes to the undertaking and players required to manage and save a species and made me realize that everyone has a part to play.
The decades-long history of the red wolf species reintroduction program is full of highs and lows, although the lows seem to be more frequent in recent memory. From my management consulting eyes, this is a long-term strategic roadmap to achieving success. How is success defined for red wolf reintroduction? Simply put, it’s reintroducing red wolves to their dedicated recovery area and allowing them to thrive enough to a sustainable population in which there are many ecological benefits. For now, our main objective is to implement coexistence measures with humans. This requires addressing potential conflicts with wildlife on private land, education programs, fundraising to help manage the species and many other measures.
After a few months of working directly with Defenders of Wildlife, we decided we could gain the insights we’ve been striving so hard for if we visited the recovery area and saw for ourselves the ecosystem, the surrounding communities and the people who are involved at the local level to save the species.
5:30am: It’s still dark, but dawn is approaching. I just drove over what seemed to be the longest bridge over the widest river and am now at the entrance of the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge. Red wolves are notoriously elusive, so our best chance to see them will be before the sun rises and they retreat into the thick pocosin brush. The preserve is enormous, and besides the access roads and some fields being farmed on the border, it is a wild place. In all my years in North Carolina, I have yet to see this type of topography and vegetation. By 6:03 the sun has risen and the bugs are out. Our merry band remains excited and holds out hope we will see red wolves. Quickly, we observe a diverse array of wildlife, including black bears, water moccasin, wild lilies, cats, more snakes, insects…everything but red wolves. However, we spot several relatively fresh canid tracks. Could they be? Our fearless leader and canid expert, Heather investigates and confirms: Yes, red wolves were here!
7:30am: We’ve had no luck in seeing red wolves. Time to drive around the refuge to see if we’ll have better luck. Here’s some unsolicited advice: If you plan on driving around in a nature refuge with no paved roads, I don’t recommend using a compact rental car. I’m sure I received an additional charge to clean the wheel wells of my rental; this being the result of almost getting stuck in the depths of the refuge. After another couple of hours, it seems the wolves have eluded us.
10:30am: We drive to Columbia and arrive at the Red Wolf Education Center, run by the North Carolina Wildlife Federation. It’s here that I find a treasure trove of literature and educational materials about red wolves. Our band of characters step outside and walk up to an enclosure…
10:55am: They are here! Captive red wolves are permanent residents at the educational center. They are beautiful animals with mesmerizing gold and brown eyes, three tone fur, and, even in captivity, a wild spirit that flows through them. If you’ve never seen a wolf (wild or in captivity), you’ve never seen an animal trot like this; there is a wary confidence that is difficult to describe, all while slinking their head. In their eyes, there is a familiarity, a recognition of a soul. If you have a dog that you cherish, you might understand. Never would I have thought that these highly evolved specialists could survive in the heat of the Southeast, let alone a native wolf species near the coast. It reminds me that if we as humans give the natural world the space and time to heal, it can survive and thrive. The hour we spent observing these wolves in their enclosure rounded out one of the most fulfilling days of my life.
While I don’t claim to be an expert in the recovery of red wolves or truly understand the experience of locals dealing with a federally protected species, I view the plight of red wolves as a microcosm of the human relationship with nature and wolves throughout history. That which we don’t understand, we fear. At the risk of oversimplifying the issue, we are at a critical moment in both human and natural history. If we don’t take the measures to allow our planet and its many species to operate as intended, there will be dire consequences for all of us in the not-so-distant future.
The hours I spent in the recovery area provided an experience I will never forget. We all have a part to play in ensuring the survival of this majestic species, the most endangered species of wolf on the planet, who calls North Carolina home. Won’t you join us?