As five red wolves trotted nervously in the large outdoor cages behind her, Sarah Dawsey reflected on the conditions that had put them in captivity – and whether the wild canine species can be saved from extinction.
Dawsey, who manages the Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge near Charleston, knows plenty about wolves. Red wolves have been in captivity at Cape Romain since the 1990s and are part of a government program that scientists hope will expand populations.
“We want red wolves to be able to thrive,” Dawsey said. “I can’t say yes or no whether I think this is a doable thing. I do know that every species should be allowed to survive. There are only 300 of these wolves in existence, and that’s because of man.”
But after some three decades of work, the federal program to protect red wolves is in trouble.
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The initiative since 1987 has focused on establishing a wild red wolf population in coastal North Carolina by using wolves bred at Cape Romain and other sites, then released into the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge. The animals roam free and use their instincts to survive.
The release program, however, isn’t working as envisioned, according to a Nov. 14 consulting study commissioned by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Even though the effort has had some success, changes are needed – if that’s possible, the study said.
Service officials are expected to announce a decision early next year on whether to change the red wolf recovery program or abandon the effort altogether in North Carolina. Major concerns highlighted in the Wildlife Management Institute study include the difficulty of maintaining wild populations of red wolves in a region now overrun by coyotes, which breed with wolves. Landowners also are complaining about wolves and coyotes on their property.
If the Fish and Wildlife Service shuts down the release program near the Outer Banks, it would be a substantial setback in the effort to re-establish red wolves in the wild. Not only would the Alligator River site be closed, but possible release sites in South Carolina and other states might not be established.
That would leave red wolves alive only in captivity at zoos and government facilities, such as the Sewee Visitors Center at Cape Romain.
“It wouldn’t bode well for the prospects of re-establishing wild populations,” said John Kilgo, a South Carolina-based biologist with the U.S. Forest Service who critiqued the study. “It wouldn’t mean that the (entire) recovery program is over necessarily, but it would be a blow to it.
“If it fails there in North Carolina, it just highlights the difficulty for doing this anywhere else.’’
While the Fish and Wildlife Service could shut down the wild-release program, the service also could keep it operating and add more sites to establish red wolves in the wild. The recent study said the existing program has been hampered because additional release sites were never established.
The Francis Marion National Forest, adjacent to Cape Romain, is a potential spot to release wolves in the wild, according to a document included in the Wildlife Management Institute study.
Wolf survival plan rooted in SC
Red wolves are grayish and rust-colored creatures that can weigh up to 80 pounds and stand 26 inches at the shoulder.
They are smaller than western gray wolves, which can weigh as much as 120 pounds, but larger than coyotes. Biologists say red wolves aren’t dangerous to people, and in fact, are quite shy.
Once found from New England to Texas, red wolves were declared extinct in the wild in 1980, a victim mostly of people not liking them. As Europeans settled in the South, they saw the ruddy canines as threats to livestock and game. So settlers started killing the wolves. The slaughter continued for generations, thanks in part to government-paid bounties.
By the early 1900s, red wolves had disappeared from much of the South, and in 1967, the federal government declared the southern wolves endangered. Biologists began rounding up the few remaining animals from coastal Texas and Louisiana to launch a captive breeding program.
In 1978, red wolves were released on Bulls Island in the Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge to see how they would fare. The wolves adapted, and the experimental release proved successful.
The government then launched an effort to restock larger areas of the South with red wolves. The first site, established in 1987, was at the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge in northeastern North Carolina. Another site, in the Great Smoky Mountains, failed.
To supply Alligator River, adult pairs of red wolves and their pups were released on barrier islands in South Carolina, Florida and Mississippi. When pups reared on the islands reached a suitable age, they were sent to Alligator River to live in the wild. Captive breeding programs also supplied Alligator River.
The South Carolina program, at Bulls Island, produced 26 pups before it was shut down about 10 years ago. Federal officials said it was no longer needed to supply the North Carolina refuge.
Today, Alligator River has about 100 red wolves. Another 200 exist worldwide, mostly in zoos or at federal captive breeding sites, such as the one at Cape Romain’s Sewee Visitor’s Center.
Last spring, the Sewee Center celebrated the first group of pups born there. Two of the original group of six are still in a large outdoor cage with their mother. The father was sent to Alligator River last week.
On a recent winter day, the young wolves and their mother raced through the forested cage as a Cape Romain volunteer stopped by to check on them. In an adjacent cage, two 6-year-old female wolves on display for Sewee Center visitors scampered about, diving into a den they had dug in the ground, then dashing away.
“It’s an honor for me to work here,” wolf keeper Rob Johnson said as he looked at the animals he tends.
While captive animals may be faring well, the red wolf release program has a number of problems, ranging from poor communication with adjacent landowners to insufficient management from higher-level officials at the Fish and Wildlife Service, the service-commissioned report said.
It also noted that red wolves in North Carolina need far more space than initially anticipated and that the sea level rise could push them away from their coastal refuge at some point in the future. That could heighten the need for additional wild release sites if the decision is made to continue the release program.
But perhaps the biggest concern the report noted is whether red wolves can survive side-by-side with coyotes.
As coyotes have expanded in the South during the past 30 years, they’ve run into increasing conflicts with hunters who see the animals as threats to kill off the deer that sportsmen like to shoot. Some farmers in eastern North Carolina also are unhappy with the presence of coyotes, which they fear could kill livestock on their property.
Red wolves that have wandered off the Alligator River refuge were mistaken for coyotes and shot by hunters. The state of North Carolina recently banned night-hunting near the refuge for coyotes.
A bigger threat than red wolves being shot is crossbreeding between coyotes and red wolves, experts say.
Mike Phillips, director of the Turner Endangered Species Fund in Montana, said the trend of coyotes breeding with red wolves threatens the recovery program as designed. He worked with the red wolf recovery program in North Carolina before moving west to help reintroduce gray wolves to Yellowstone National Park.
“The only real threat to the red wolf that is an absolute booger bear is hybridization with coyotes,” Phillips said. “Can you minimize that threat so that the red wolf is not threatened and is not endangered? That is an open-ended question.”
Some biologists say red wolves would not breed with coyotes if they had a sufficient population of wolves with which to mate. The bigger wolves also would push coyotes away because they are more dominant, according to the theory.
But whether that’s true is unknown and why Phillips favors allowing some red wolves to live side-by-side with coyotes – without government efforts to limit cross-breeding. That’s a major part of the work now going on at Alligator River.
The Wildlife Management Institute report has similar suggestions. It recommends either discontinuing sterilization of coyotes at Alligator River or introducing red wolves in other sites across the South without sterilizing coyotes in those areas.
Efforts to stop cross-breeding generally have succeeded in North Carolina, but it’s questionable whether they are realistic because the work has been costly and has no end in sight, the report said.
Wild wolves in SC?
The Francis Marion National Forest is a possibility as a temporary site to see whether wolves can co-exist with coyotes, but Phillips said it also could be a long-term place to release wolves if it’s shown they can live with their smaller cousins.
The U.S. Forest Service preserve, coupled with the adjacent Cape Romain refuge, would encompass more than 300,000 acres of potential habitat. It is full of deer and other wild game. The original site at Alligator River made up only 144,000 acres, although the area wolves roam now is about 1.7 million acres on and around the refuge.
“Of course the Francis Marion should be looked at if the service ever got to that point,” Phillips said, noting that the South Carolina forest “should still be in play.”
Experts say establishing more sites would help keep wolf populations genetically diverse. Wolves from one refuge could be paired with wolves from other refuges.
Dana Beach, founder and director of the influential S.C. Coastal Conservation League, said he would welcome red wolves as neighbors.
“They are beautiful animals,” Beach said. “That would be exciting and positive to have them here. You think of all the things we deal with in this state, from traffic congestion to mosquitoes, absolutely we could get along with the red wolf.”
For Dawsey, federal efforts to save red wolves today provide an interesting contrast given the nation’s history with red wolves.
“The government actually paid to have these wolves poisoned and shot,” Dawsey said. “Now, here we are at the brink of extinction and we are fighting to (protect) the wolf that we put in this situation to start with. It’s just ironic, isn’t it?”