Few people know about this, but way out on the Albemarle Peninsula in Eastern North Carolina (the last stretch of land you drive through on U.S. 64 on the way to the Outer Banks), there is a dangerous animal on the loose. This animal inflicts painful injuries on at least 25 people every year in that region, and it even kills people now and then.
And since it is not a picky eater, the beast is a major headache to farmers as well, ingesting at least a $1.5 million in crops each year. The shocking thing is that the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission intentionally brought this species back from the brink of extinction.
We’re talking about the red wolf, right? The 70-pound canid that was released back into the wild on the Albemarle Peninsula back in 1987, eight years before the gray wolves were brought back to Yellowstone?
Wrong. The most dangerous, most costly species of wildlife in Eastern North Carolina isn’t the red wolf, nor is it the black bear. What you really have to watch out for on your way to the beach is the white-tailed deer.
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Just looking at the red wolf recovery area on the peninsula, deer collide with vehicles at least 500 times per year! There haven’t been any fatalities in the past six years, but 152 people have been injured, and the deer smashed up vehicles to the tune of $6.25 million in reported damages, according to the N.C. DOT. About half of all deer collisions go unreported.
The crop damage from deer is so bad, farmers apply for what are called depredation permits to shoot them out of season. More than half of the farmers don’t even report back how many deer they mow down, but extrapolating from the data we do have from the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission, it looks like farmers are killing close to 200 nuisance deer every year on the peninsula.
What about the red wolves? Well, in the 27 years since their reintroduction, they actually haven’t hurt anyone. Nobody knows how many deer the wolves eat every year (maybe 1,500?). It is hard to say how many of those deer would have gone on to smash into cars, but it is safe to say that red wolves actually make the Albemarle Peninsula safer for human beings! That is a hard fact to swallow for a society in which cultural hatred for wolves runs so deep.
Now the politically appointed members of the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission have just passed a resolution asking the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to remove the red wolf from the wild and declare it extinct. Apparently, the commission members are reacting to pressure from certain wealthy landowners on the peninsula, some of whom claim the red wolf and its sister species, the coyote, are causing the “greatest wildlife catastrophe ever inflicted on the state of North Carolina.” That is the myth. The reality is that even with the coyotes and wolves, the total deer harvest by hunters in Tyrrell County (where one strident wolf opponent has a hobby farm) has risen by 375 percent since the start of the red wolf recovery program in 1987.
From the standpoint of drivers and from the standpoint of real farmers in Eastern North Carolina, the problem isn’t that we have a shortage of deer. It’s that we have a shortage of hunters, both human and wild.
Red wolves and coyotes can help, but we have to stop treating them like hated vermin and instead give them the respect they deserve for serving very important ecological and public safety functions in our woods, fields and highways.
Ron Sutherland, Ph.D., of Durham is a conservation scientist with Wildlands Network.