Point of View

How the red wolf saved itself

November 25, 2013 


A red wolf rests inside the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge in North Carolina.

JOHN D. SIMMONS — JOHN D. SIMMONS - jsimmons@charl

North Carolina conservationists have taken their fight to protect red wolves to federal court, alleging that the state’s new laws that liberalize coyote hunting will likely result in more deaths of the endangered red wolf.

The federal government has about 100 government certified red wolves living in the Hyde/Tyrell/Dare county region in northeastern North Carolina. The feds have said for the past 40 years that the red wolf is extinct in the wild, with the exception of their wolves. Their wolves are the offspring of red wolves taken from the wilds of Texas and Louisiana in the 1970s and maintained in a captive breeding program. They brought some of the offspring to Eastern North Carolina and released them in the woods in order to restore the species in N.C., which was part of the animal’s original range. The first releases were in 1987.

The concern raised by the lawsuit is probably valid because a red wolf and a coyote look almost identical. Hunters cannot tell the two apart. Neither can the animals – red wolves and coyotes readily mate, and produce healthy, fertile offspring. The similarity of appearance is not surprising. New genetic analysis indicates that red wolves are descended from coyotes, which is another way of saying that a red wolf is a type of coyote .

Red wolves, or perhaps more accurately, the southeastern coyote, once ranged across the southeast. They were killed as vermin by farmers and hunters. By the 1950s or so, they were gone, except in Texas and Louisiana.

The feds trapped 400 red wolves in order to save the species. They culled the 400 animals down to a core group of 14 that they declared where bonafied red wolves. These animals were put in captivity as breeders to keep the species alive.

The federal red wolves in Eastern North Carolina are decedents of the 14, and genetic studies show they are basically a large coyote with a smidge of dog. This is all a red wolf has ever been. The dog portion probably came originally from dogs raised by Native Americans that mated with wild coyotes. After the demise of Native Americans, the dog portion probably came from strays or yard dogs.

The feds’ red wolf removal didn’t get all the remaining red wolves in the wild, and while the feds were doing their thing with their 14 animals, the remaining red wolves decided to take matters into their own paws. They bred with one another – and with smaller coyotes and the occasional dog – and as their population built, their offspring began heading east. They were retaking their former habitat.

County by county, state by state, they moved eastward – Arkansas, Tennessee, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, Florida, South Carolina and lastly North Carolina. As they spread, they encountered abundant food, which led to large litters and many offspring. They repopulated the Southeast at a rate of about one state every 10 years.

We now have red wolves in every N.C. county. Most are a reddish brown color, but some are black. They are big like their ancestors, probably due to excellent nutrition in the South.

Those of us who appreciate wildlife can celebrate the species return to the Tar Heel State. They were here when our ancestors arrived. They got knocked way back, but the red wolf has shown it can take a punch and come back stronger. How can you not appreciate an animal with that type of resilience? Welcome home.

It’s time for the federal government to give up on its red wolf recovery effort in Eastern North Carolina. The red wolf saved itself. The red wolves that the government released into the wild should be left alone to mix and mingle with the other red wolves in the area.

The N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission should accept that the animal it classifies as a coyote was historically present in North Carolina and not a non-native species as they claim. Red wolves are as native as deer and bears.

The environmental groups should drop their lawsuit against the state, step back for reflection and celebrate the resilience of an amazing animal. As much as the groups want to help, they aren’t needed in this case – the red wolf did it on its own.

John Wooding of Winston-Salem is a wildlife biologist.

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