The Disappearing North Carolina Red Wolf
Howling For Survival
We all know our Outer Banks here in North Carolina is a special place. The heart of the OBX has existed in periodic harmony with nature, her environment, and creatures since the founders first laid foot on her soil centuries ago. People have learned that Mother Nature is the bigger, stronger force here and shows respect for the environment and non-human populace. Generally, we as a people, try to live in successful cohabitation with her wild creatures: mammalian, avian, aquatic, and reptilian.
The red wolf (Canis Rufus), a smaller version of the better-known grey wolf, once inhabited much of the southeastern part of this country, including Louisiana, Texas, the Carolinas, Florida, and Alabama. The devastation of its environment, as well as the wolf-loathing mentality brought to this country by early settlers, caused a drastic reduction in their population. Once the red wolf population was depleted, coyotes moved in from the west, taking over the niche of their larger cousins. The two canids began to interbreed, and the resulting hybridization has become a serious threat to the integrity of the red wolf species. Red wolf numbers have plummeted drastically.
The red wolf is the rarest and most endangered of all the wolf species. Today, it is estimated that anywhere from 20 to 35 red wolves roam their native habitats in eastern North Carolina, and more than 250 red wolves are maintained in captive breeding facilities throughout the United States. “Once common throughout the Eastern and South Central United States, red wolf populations were decimated by the early 20th century as a result of intensive predator control programs and the degradation and alteration of the species’ habitat,” according to the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS).
In the 1970s, according to the USFWS, the last remaining red wolves were captured for captive breeding purposes while the species was declared “extinct in the wild.” Since then, heightened conservation efforts have managed to stave off extinction of the red wolf population, part of which still lives in the wild, and the major part of which lives in captivity.
Nature writer T. DeLene Beeland, author of The Secret World of Red Wolves, The Fight to Save North America’s Other Wolf, appreciates the red wolves’ habitat and plight: “To me, the Albemarle Peninsula is a place of rich contrasts: a land of conserved ecosystems fragmented by heavy farming and of natural and rural beauty marred by poverty. Of course, it is also unique because it is the only spot in the entire world where red wolves live by their own wild cunning, shoehorned between the North Carolina upper coastal plain and the Atlantic Ocean. It was into this water-riddled and sparsely settled landscape that four pairs of red wolves were released within Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge on September 14, 1987. Their reintroduction was nothing short of a biological, political, and sociological miracle.”
Through the USFWS conservation efforts, red wolves were the first species to be successfully brought back from extinction in the wild. While this is admirable and commendable, here in North Carolina, the large amount of human-caused mortalities to red wolves has decreased the population to a mere twelve (12) documented individual red wolves. These twelve remaining have been radio-collared and are being tracked by the USFWS. In addition, a court ruling placed a permanent injunction against capturing or killing red wolves without first showing that they pose a threat to human, livestock, or pet safety.
Joe Madison of the USFWS has reported that 2019 was the first year there were no red wolf pups born to the North Carolina wild population. There are also no breeding pairs currently available in NC. In addition, five mortalities were recorded in the last twelve months: two by vehicle strikes, one by gunshot, one by suspected gunshot, and one of unknown causes.
When asked about the greatest misconception the public has about the red wolf, Kim Wheeler of the Red Wolf Coalition has a simple answer: fear. In her 15 years of working with the coalition, Wheeler has stated that she has met many individuals that expressed their fear of these wolves. Working for that long with an educational group such as the coalition, she understands that red wolves operate in a family unit and do not kill for the sport of it; they hunt for food, for survival. Getting this across to the public has been a challenge since a perceived fear of the red wolf is one of the biggest hindrances preventing their tolerance by humans.
Strategies to remediate solutions for the red wolves’ habitat are being adjusted. According to Greg Sheehan, the USFWS’s Principal Deputy Director, “By restricting management to Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge and the Dare County Bombing Range, we will ensure we can better reduce external threats and monitor the environments surrounding these wild wolves. A recent Species Status Assessment (by the USFWS) informed us that past strategies were not effectively leading to recovery, so we believe that a concerted effort in a managed area will help.”
Join The Cause
To save these amazing canids, be a positive advocate for the Red Wolves! Here are some resources if you’re interested in helping Red Wolf conservation:
- Science and nature writer. T. Delene Beeland has written an excellent nonfiction book, The Secret World of Red Wolves, which gives numerous
first-hand excerpts from various parts of red wolf conservation. To get a closer look at what the world around these critically endangered canids is like, as well as learn a little about the people who work to keep their population stable, I highly recommend this source. It is an enjoyable read, and Ms. Beeland creates a concise, well-researched volume of red wolf knowledge.
- The Red Wolf Coalition’s website, a mine of information regarding all aspects of red wolves, red wolf
conservation, and much more. Here you can find facts about the history, biology, behaviors, and more of Canis rufus, and find multiple ways to help the cause through the RWC. redwolves.com
- The Red Wolf Coalition page on Facebook is also a good source for further information. facebook.com/ redwolfcoalition
- The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s website. Their
portion specifically relating to red wolves, gives important background information about the species, as well as up-to-date information on the current state of the canid population. You can monitor the status of red wolf conservation by periodically reviewing the following website. fws.gov/southeast/wildlife/mammals/red-wolf
- A number of nonprofit organizations are working to help red wolves. These organizations help fund important parts of the recovery effort, spread news, and information about red wolves and generally promote their restoration on the whole. To accomplish these goals and objectives, these organizations must rely on funding by the general public. Those wishing to donate, contact the following websites: The Red Wolf Coalition and the Red Wolf Species Plan
Rebecca is a recent Iowa transplant to the Outer Banks and spends her days enjoying the beach and seafood, and her nights contemplating the sea and the stars. It has been her long-held dream to be a writer.