Government's red wolf program concerns some NC landowners

jshaffer@newsobserver.comFebruary 15, 2014 

— The wolves look ghostly at night, ears pricked up, eyes like highbeams in the dark.

In a single evening, Jett Ferebee might see five or six of them – reddish-brown, sniffing at the camera mounted on his Washington County farm. They build dens in his tractor shelter. They feed on his rabbits. They drag deer carcasses into the woods. They eat the animals his family used to hunt.

Ferebee’s land lies at the western edge of the Red Wolf Recovery Program, a 27-year federal project aimed at restoring to the far-eastern edge of North Carolina one of nature’s most fragile species. For the last decade, he has waged constant battle over the private land he describes as ruined by wolves, coyotes and the “super-coyotes” they breed.

He has watched the government try to frighten wolves off his property with air horns. They come back.

He has allowed it to set leg traps on his land to capture and relocate wandering wolves. They come back.

He has repeatedly sought a permit to shoot the wolves that pester him, as the law instructs him to do. He hasn’t gotten one.

“It used to be cool to hear a wolf howl,” said Ferebee, 55. “Too much of a good thing.”

Ferebee’s fight exposes a deep cultural clash between those who would artificially restore a predator species on mostly private land and the landowners who live in the middle of the government’s science project. Hunters feel their way of life stripped away to make room for a wolf that chases the same prey; conservationists feel undermined by a small group of landowners who put private property over public good.

And then there are the coyotes, a species that complicates the human-canine mix.

Smaller, almost impossible to distinguish from their red wolf cousins, coyotes have flooded into wolf territory, prompting the federal government to sterilize them and limit wolf-coyote breeding.

But Ferebee sees coyotes running with wolves on his farm, some of them wearing government tracking collars, others wearing plain fur. He’s showed pictures to wildlife officials who shrug their shoulders over which animal is which.

The confusion has grown so tangled that conservation groups filed a federal lawsuit last fall, aiming to stop all coyote hunting in the five-county area where wolves thrive.

The red wolf “is more in peril in the wild than most endangered species,” said Sierra Weaver, senior attorney with the Southern Envirnomental Law Center, arguing before U.S. District Judge Terrence Boyle on Tuesday in a hearing.

But to Ferebee, it’s time to call off the experiment. Over five days in January, a trapper caught three wolves with tracking collars and two wolf hybrids on his farm. On the sixth day, Ferebee photographed three more collared canines.

“Hey guys,” he said. “It was a just cause. But it’s not working.”

Wolf incubator

About 10 miles from Ferebee’s farm, Kim Wheeler of the nonprofit Red Wolf Coalition shows off a pair of ambassador wolves, a sleek male and female raised in captivity.

“This is Betty,” she says, motioning to the den made of dirt, rubble and corrugated pipe. “This is Hank.”

Red wolves contribute to the region as a top predator, said David Rabon, coordinator of the program for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Farmers praise wolves for feeding on nutria, large rodents that bore into their dikes, and for keeping raccoons at bay.

But for most people, the wolves offer a compelling stop on the beach route from Raleigh to the Outer Banks, just a short side-trip south of Columbia and the Scuppernong River.

Red wolves avoid humans, making them nearly impossible to see in the wild. In eight years, Wheeler has seen a wild red wolf only twice. Last year, she brought 2,000 visitors to Hank and Betty’s pen, sometimes leading visitors in a howl.

“I had a couple come from Japan,” she said. “We get a lot of school groups here. Hank and Betty are on Facebook, too. Maybe someday somebody will come and rent kayaks and bikes.”

Her vision marks the slow growth of the government’s wolf incubator, a program with an annual budget of roughly $1.1 million.

In 1987, red wolves had almost completely vanished, their breed hunted and chased almost to extinction.

Federal wildlife officials pinned down the last of their kind along the Louisiana-Texas border, and they whittled that group down to 14 deemed genetically red pure wolves – no coyote blood in their veins.

They planted a hopeful seed in the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge, not far from Hank and Betty’s pen, releasing just four pairs of wolves into the dense thicket.

Back then, the red wolf territory spanned only 259,000 acres, half the size of Wake County.

But the government had the stated goal of expanding both the wolf population and the land it covered. Before long, wolf land expanded into Dare, Hyde, Beaufort, Tyrrell and Washington counties – a 1.7 million-acre red wolf habitat, the vast majority of it private land.

Wildlife officials chose far-eastern North Carolina largely because it lacked coyotes to mix with wolves and absorb their tiny number. Also, they argued, the sparse human population would minimize any damage or inconvenience – even to hunters competing for prey.

“Red wolves and sportsmen can coexist,” the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said in its first five-year report, published in 1992.

But by 1999, the coyote population had spread so thick across the five counties that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listed them as the greatest threat to wolf survival, citing the potential for coyotes and wolves to interbreed.

Proposals for dealing with the coyote threat ranged from killing them to fencing in refuge land.

The government took a different path: the “placeholder” strategy now used to combat coyote populations. Male and female coyotes found with wolves are trapped and sterilized through vasectomy or tubal ligation, using local veterinarians.

Those sterile coyotes then hold a place within wolf packs, keeping away fertile wolves who might invade territory and create wolf-coyote hybrids. As of February, 61 sterilized coyotes were wearing tracking collars.

Rabon, coordinator of the government’s red wolf program, described placeholders as highly effective against interbreeding and having minimized the threats pointed out in 1999.

“I don’t know about super-coyotes,” Rabon said, dismissing the local nickname for hybrids. “They don’t assume super powers, though. They don’t take down deer in a single bite.”

Ferebee and other landowners are skeptical and say the wolf program has spiraled dangerously out of control. How, they ask, can the government patrol the coyote population ranging over 1.7 million acres? Based on the animals he finds on his farm, he believes the populations of both animals are larger than the government knows.

He notes that Rabon co-authored a report in 2013 that described the coyote sterilization strategy as heavy-handed and short term.

“You’re on people’s private property trapping coyotes and sterilizing them?” Ferebee asked. “How contrary to Mother Nature is that?”

Resentment started early

To date, there are no known red wolf attacks on humans and few documented livestock kills.

Still, resentment started building early on. Though red wolves are protected under the Endangered Species Act, locals were promised that they would be classified as “nonessential and experimental,” giving landowners more leeway in dealing with them.

“All of this is an experiment,” said Michael Bulleri, attorney for the N.C. Department of Justice, arguing against a coyote hunting ban before Judge Boyle last week.

Before the program turned 5 years old, both Hyde and Washington counties adopted resolutions opposing expansion.

They argued that a new pack of wild predators would negatively affect their land, and they resented being forced to host the government’s science project on their property.

Ferebee, a real estate developer in Greenville, trains bird dogs on his land in Washington County, which covers more than 1,000 acres. Ten years ago, he said, you could see herds of 100 deer most any time of day. He planted food plots to lure them, along with vegetation to encourage quail nesting. His family spent holidays there, and their living room wall is lined with trophy bucks. A bearskin rug covers the floor.

“It might sound small,” Ferebee said. “But that’s what I bought the land for.”

In a rural region where hunting is almost second nature, where hunting clubs cover thousands of acres and shooters travel from distant states for a chance at North Carolina wildlife, it is impossible to overstate the importance of sport shooting.

Over the 2012-2013 season, hunters in Beaufort took roughly 2,800 deer – about the same number as in Wake County, where the population is 20 times higher.

So in 1995, eight years into the program, the federal government outlined new rules for landowners troubled by wolves. First: Call to have them removed. Second: Seek a permit to kill problem wolves.

In 10 years, the government has trapped collared wolves all over Ferebee’s land. But he has coyotes running rampant there, too, some of them wearing collars that show they’ve been sterilized.

Neighbors encourage him to shoot the wolves in the gut and let them crawl off his property to die. He refuses. He continually urges his neighbors and fellow hunters against taking the law in their hands.

“I’m a goody two-shoes,” he said. “I’ve never tasted alcohol. I don’t curse. I don’t want to kill a red wolf. To be honest, it would make me sick. But the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service should not be making us criminals.”

Fewer deer for hunters

Consider that the white-tailed deer harvest has dropped in nearly all five wolf counties. It’s not a drastic drop, and sometimes it’s quite small. But Hyde County saw deer numbers drop 27 percent in the last five years; Tyrrell County, 12 percent; Beaufort County, 9.8 percent.

Dr. Tony Christiano, a Greenville cardiologist, owns about 450 acres outside Belhaven, where he has hunted deer and duck, turkey and quail for decades.

Ten years ago, he’d see 30 to 50 deer in an afternoon. Now, he might see four or five. He used to guarantee visitors he’d show them a covey of birds on each trip. No more.

“It’s not uncommon to see coyotes or wolves or whatever you want to call them hunting in the fields just before daylight,” he said.

In Hyde County, Phil Barber is part-owner of Lux Farms, a private hunting club next to the Alligator River refuge. He estimates deer, rabbit and quail numbers have dropped by half in the nine years since he bought the property.

In that time, he said, he has called the Fish and Wildlife Service at least 20 times and asked them to remove wolves from his land. Once removed, the wolves quickly return.

“It’s a vicious cycle,” he said. “Most of the (wolf/coyote) scat that you see, especially when the fawns are dropping in the spring, you’re seeing scat that has deer fur in it. It’s pretty obvious.”

Relief for landowners depends on what they expect, Rabon said. Canids of some kind, whether wolves or coyotes, will always be in the area.

“With Mr. Ferebee,” he said, “we’ve been very successful removing animals from his property when he’s called us. But it’s temporary. They’re going to come back. Something is going to come back.”

Evin Stanford, deer and turkey biologist with the state Wildlife Resources Commission, notes that the deer population has dropped statewide, largely thanks to more hunters taking does.

He doubts the red wolves are making a significant dent, and if they are, there are no hard data to support the claim.

“I don’t hear a lot of hunters in that area talk about red wolves,” he said. “I hear constantly, statewide, about coyotes.”

Uneasy mix

Kim Wheeler drives around Columbia, where the Red Wolf coalition is headquartered, in a car with “WOLFNANY” on her license plate.

Sometimes, wearing her red wolf T-shirt in the grocery store, cashiers will ask about the program, telling her they didn’t know the animals lived nearby. Other times, she’ll get singled out in the aisles by red wolf opponents who want to argue.

With a sales and marketing background, she has been able to draw support for the wolves from Kazakhstan to Hong Kong to Norway, judging from petitions signed in their favor. Support at home is harder.

“Unlike anything I’ve ever experienced in my life,” she said. “I’d like to think that in 2014 we are beyond prejudice.”

Rabon, with the Fish and Wildlife Service, said opposition isn’t pervasive. Cultural differences in Eastern North Carolina make it difficult for people to support a government-funded predator program.

“A lot of them will work with us,” he said. “But they’re not going to advertise it. They’re not going to put a bumper sticker on their car.”

Fourteen red wolves died in 2013 that the coalition knows about, including nine dead by suspected or confirmed gunshot wounds. Another wolf was found killed, apparently shot, on Jan. 7.

“Because of the similarity of appearance between red wolves and coyotes, it is nearly impossible for individual hunters to avoid shooting red wolves,” said the lawsuit that the Red Wolf Coalition and other wildlife groups filed against the state.

If successful, the suit could stop coyote hunting altogether in the five eastern counties. If it does, expect more trouble in the uneasy mix between man and beast.

Shaffer: 919-829-4818

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