It isn't easy being a red wolf

September 30, 2016, 10:56 a.m.
Red wolf (Canis rufus)
Photo: Steve Hillebrand/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Once found throughout what is now the Southeastern United States, red wolves (Canis rufus) have had a rough time over the past couple of centuries. In the years since the arrival of Europeans, the small, rusty-colored canines have been hunted to near annihilation. By the mid-20th century, they had almost disappeared in the wild.

All that changed in 1987, after the implementation of a red wolf reintroduction program in North Carolina's Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), the release of these endangered canines marked "the first time in this nation’s history that a federally-listed species was reintroduced to the historic range from which it had been extirpated."

By 2006, the wild population of red wolves had reached an estimated 120 to 130 individuals in their native habitats, with nearly 200 more maintained in captive breeding centers. Over the years, the red wolf program has served as a model for other wolf reintroduction programs, including one in the greater Yellowstone ecosystem for gray wolves.

Of course, as with any endangered species management program, it's complicated.

In 2015, the USFWS announced it would be suspending all future reintroductions of captive red wolves into the wilds of North Carolina to reevaluate the program. The move came in response to pressure from landowners as well as concerns regarding the red wolf's species dispersal patterns, vast range requirements and increasing hybridization with wild coyotes. (It's worth mentioning that a more recent study suggests there's only one true wolf species — and that eastern wolves and red wolves are genetic hybrids of gray wolves and coyotes.)

Unsurprisingly, the USFWS announcement was met with controversy. In response a coalition of nonprofit wildlife conservation organizations teamed up on a grassroots petition effort. The petition, which garnered nearly half a million signatures, urges the USFWS to reconsider its decision and "fulfill its legal duty under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) to recover the critically endangered red wolf."

In a preemptive addressing of these concerns, USFWS Southeast Regional Director Cindy Dohner acknowledges "there will likely be some who will suggest we are walking away from recovery efforts for the red wolf and simultaneously there will be others who might say we’re holding on too tight. We have a responsibility under the ESA to provide good management and shepherd the conservation and recovery of this species to the best of our ability."

In September 2016, the USFWS announced it would remove several packs of red wolves from private lands and relocate them to Dare County within the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge, while others may end up in zoos as mating pairs to shore up the red wolves in captivity. With only 29 breeding pairs currently in captivity, the USFWS says the captive population is not robust enough to sustain itself and must be increased to at least 52.

In making the announcement, Dohner said, "We believe the actions we’ve outlined today chart the correct path to achieve success. We need everyone’s help ensure this species is around for future generations."

But again, the news was met with controversy.

“They’re shifting their entire emphasis from trying to create a self-sustaining population to growing the zoo population by up to 400 animals to prevent genetic erosion,” Ron Sutherland of the Wildlands Network told the Washington Post. He equated the new proposal to “one big holding pen for red wolves.”

Just a few weeks later, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina issued a preliminary injunction stopping USFWS from capturing or harming red wolves or authorizing private landowners to do the same. On behalf of Defenders of Wildlife, the Animal Welfare Institute and the Red Wolf Coalition, the Southern Environmental Law Center argued said the injunction was necessary.

"This is a great day for red wolves and for anyone who loves nature in eastern North Carolina," said Sierra Weaver, senior attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center. "The court was clear that it's the Fish and Wildlife Service's job to conserve this endangered species, not drive it to extinction. The agency cannot simply abandon that responsibility."

Editor's note: This story was originally written in July 2016 and has been updated with new information.