EAST LAKE — Two decades after a grand experiment began to restore nearly extinct red wolves to their North Carolina homeland, far deadlier predators - people - are killing them again.
The gunshot toll among wolves in northeastern North Carolina has grown in the past five years despite federal law protecting them. Seven wolves have been shot since October. Federal agents are investigating two more deaths in April, and $15,000 rewards have been offered.
The shootings underscore the depth of age-old animosities toward wolves. While conservationists celebrate their return, hunters and landowners often see wolves as vermin that no longer belong among the coastal swamps, forests and fields.
Red wolves once roamed the Southeast. Now each death of a breeding-age wolf staggers a wild population that, 23 years after they were released into the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge, numbers only about 120.
The wolves were the nation's first animals to be reintroduced to their native range after being declared extinct in the wild. They're still among the rarest mammals on Earth, outnumbered by China's giant pandas and the mountain gorillas of Africa.
The packs that now patrol the 1.7 million-acre Albemarle peninsula sprang from a founding lineage of just 14 wolves.
Life is hard even on the fertile coastal plain. Wolves die when they're hit by cars, fight over territory or, in the case of one unlucky victim, choke on a raccoon's kidney.
But nothing kills them more often than guns, mostly during fall and winter hunting seasons.
"When hunting season starts, I say a little prayer," said Kim Wheeler, director of the Red Wolf Coalition, an education group.
Between 1999 and 2006, gunshots accounted for 32 percent of the breeding wolves that died. Guns have killed six to eight wolves a year since 2007. Illegally killing a red wolf can cost up to a year in prison and a $100,000 fine.
The losses mean fewer pups and more territory open to invaders, coyotes that often breed with wolves.
For years, controlling coyotes - they're now trapped and sterilized - posed the biggest headache in bringing back the wolves, said recovery coordinator David Rabon. Now it's "premature mortality," chiefly shootings.
As gunshot deaths grew, the number of wolf packs dropped from 20 or more to 14.
Some shootings may stem from mistaken identity. Young wolves can look like coyotes, which may be legally killed. Most wolves wear white collars that track their movements, but some coyotes do too.
"There are people who honestly mistake a wolf for a coyote," said Rabon, a Charlotte native. "And there are people who conveniently forget what a wolf looks like."
Compounding the problem is that two-thirds of the Albemarle peninsula is private land valued for hunting deer, bear and waterfowl.
Some hunters and landowners believe wolves hurt the numbers of deer and other game. Rabon cites studies showing that overall wildlife health improves as wolves prey on old, sick and weak animals.
Critics also doubt the animals are true wolves at all, insisting they're coyote hybrids. They say the government money spent on the program, whose budget is now about $1 million a year, has been wasted.
"I've heard it said many times, when they see them they're going to put a bullet in them because it's ruining what they enjoy doing," said Dennis Benston, an area native who owns a sporting goods and firearms store in Engelhard, on the peninsula's southern end.
Benston says wolves are drawn to the "easy pickings" of house pets, chickens and other small animals outside wildlife refuges. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service says it has paid damages for such killings only about a half-dozen times since 1987. Benston believes the agency covers up such problems and misled local people into thinking the wolves would stay on federal land.
"It's bred into these animals to just constantly kill, and not because they're hungry," the retired state forest ranger said. "This country is fed up with being lied to by government, and people are going to do what they have to do to protect their holdings."
Fewer breeding grounds
By 1960, red wolves stood on the brink of extinction. Their territory had been splintered, the forests logged and swamps drained. They had been shot, trapped and poisoned for generations. Unable to find enough breeding partners of their own kind, they mated with coyotes.
Federal biologists captured the last 17 wolves they could find, in Texas and Louisiana, and chose 14 to rebuild the species. One left no living descendants and another only frozen sperm. Eighty-five to 90 percent of the genetic lines of the 12 remaining founders are intact, Rabon says.
Public outrage aborted an attempt to reintroduce wolves in Kentucky's Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area. North Carolina's 154,000-acre Alligator River refuge promised fewer people, less conflict and ample prey. And, at the time, no coyotes.
Landowners didn't like it.
"They didn't want them on their property," said Kelly Darden, a Greenville outdoorsman who trapped widely on the peninsula in the early 1990s. "They felt that Mother Nature would run her own course - whether through natural predation or disease, nature would protect herself - and that Fish and Wildlife was trying to force this down their throats.
"The wolves didn't know property lines."
The first four pairs, released in 1987, quickly died. Raised in captivity, the animals had no survival skills and would walk down the middle of U.S. 64 through the peninsula.
Fish and Wildlife also released wolves into Great Smoky Mountains National Park in 1991 but pulled the plug in 1998. All the pups had died, and adult wolves struggled to find enough to eat.
The Albemarle population has remained stable at 100 to 120 in recent years. All were born there except for a few captive-born pups reared by wild mothers, pumping fresh blood into the gene pool.
Some scientists believe the peninsula is nearing its wolf capacity. "I think the limitations are space. They're close to saturation at Alligator River," said Randy Fulk, education curator at the N.C. Zoo. The zoo is among the more than 40 facilities that, together, hold about 180 captive wolves.
The official recovery goal is 220 animals in the wild in three different locations.
New plan in works
Federal and state wildlife agencies are working on a new joint plan to manage wolves, coyotes and foxes on the Albemarle peninsula, and they will address illegal shootings. The Fish and Wildlife Service is in charge of wolves; the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission handles coyotes and foxes.
"The reality is that we don't know why" shootings have increased, said David Cobb, the state commission's wildlife management chief. "[We] and the service have not come to any kind of agreement how to resolve that issue."
The federal government lists red wolves as an endangered but "experimental population." The state has no similar designation. Rabon said that could confuse people about what's legal to shoot.
Some scientists say the state could revise the open season on coyotes, limiting it during spring wolf-breeding season or within wolf territory.
"The concern by the biologists is that people might use the open hunting season for coyotes as an excuse to go out and kill wolves. That's unfortunate, unethical and immoral. And that's where it starts to get politically challenging," said Michael Stoskopf, an N.C. State University wildlife medicine professor who chairs a red wolf advisory panel.
Panel members don't think shootings threaten the wolves' recovery, Stoskopf added.
The N.C. Wildlife Federation, whose members include hunters, recently added $4,500 to the rewards offered in the two recent wolf deaths "to underscore the seriousness we place on the killing of this species.
"We hope the investigation yields results and that the message is crystal clear: Killing red wolves in North Carolina will not be tolerated," executive director Tim Gestwicki said in a statement.
Howls draw tourists
Over the years, Rabon said, some landowners have come to appreciate wolves. They help control nutria, an invasive rodent that damages drainage ditches; crop-munching deer; and foxes and coyotes that prey on quail.
The Red Wolf Coalition's weekly "howling safaris" are so popular with refuge visitors that they're reservation-only. The coalition is raising money for a viewing center where tourists can see, as well as hear, the wolves.
One of the hallmarks of the red wolf program is that it changes direction, based on data that show what works and what doesn't. Innovations developed on the Albemarle peninsula have helped reintroduce other endangered animals, including the gray wolf, which has grown to more than 5,000 animals in the Great Lakes states and northern Rocky Mountains.