Red wolves need to be preserved

A female red wolf roams in a fenced area at the Red Wolf Education Center in Columbia, N.C.
A female red wolf roams in a fenced area at the Red Wolf Education Center in Columbia, N.C. jhknight@newsobserver.com

Imagine the North Carolina Museum of Art in Raleigh has a problem. One of the most prized pieces of the state’s collection, Monet’s ethereal “Waterlilies at Sunrise,” turns out to be decaying rapidly, and the dedicated curators aren’t sure how long they have before this priceless and irreplaceable painting crumbles into dust on the Museum floor.

Then imagine officials at the North Carolina Department of Natural and Cultural Resources (which oversees the museum) announced a surprising new policy about saving this treasure: “To heck with it! Let it crumble. It might be a fake! Too expensive!” The same “conservative” officials also announced they were trimming the art conservation staff at the museum by 50 percent.

Is this a true story? No, of course not. But it has a high degree of relevance in light of recent events in Raleigh. Look at the way our N.C. Natural Heritage Program budget was cut to the bone, and then even the bones were cut in half. Is there anyone still keeping track of the state’s precious biodiversity?

The art museum story is also a parable for what is going on right now with the recovery effort for another priceless North Carolina treasure, this one many thousands of years old. Padding around on four paws through the forests and fields of eastern North Carolina are the few remaining wild red wolves, an elegant, inoffensive species that once ranged across much of the southeastern United States.

After being reintroduced by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 1987, by 2006 the red wolf population had grown to 120 animals. At that point the wolves were showing every sign of pushing invading coyotes back off the Albemarle Peninsula, where the recovery effort is centered. Now, only 10 years later, the red wolf packs have been mercilessly shredded by bullets and traps, and only 45 to 60 wolves are thought to remain alive outside of zoos.

What went wrong? Somewhere along the line, the FWS forgot to maintain the levels of public outreach and education needed to keep the landowners on the peninsula informed about the red wolf program and its successes and merits. At the same time, a few relatively wealthy individuals recently took it on themselves to agitate against both the wolf and the imposition of the federal agency, and so far they’ve been all too successful in their mean-spirited hobby-quest to destroy the program.

Rather than acting fast to correct these trends, the federal wildlife agency is busy backpedaling on its commitment to returning the red wolf to the wild, cutting staff and curtailing essential management activities. FWS director Dan Ashe is expected to reveal a plan to end the wild recovery program for the species sometime this summer, unless of course he hears from the public very soon that giving up on such an important piece of our natural heritage is not actually an option for the wealthiest and most powerful nation in the world.

The red wolf is certainly a challenging species to protect, thanks to the genetic pressure from coyotes and the recent decline in perceived landowner support courtesy of the anti-wolf agitators. But it is by no means a hopeless situation. As recent history shows, when landowners and hunters tolerate the wolf and don’t shoot every one they see, the red wolf can hold its own against the coyote.

The same phenomenon has been observed up in Canada with the eastern wolf (Canis lycaon), another small wolf species with a tendency to mate with coyotes. When authorities protected all of the wild canids in and adjacent to Algonquin Provincial Park, what had seemed like an inexorable fade into coyote hybridization suddenly reversed itself, and today the eastern wolves are keeping the coyotes at bay.

If a Monet or a Picasso were on the line, we wouldn’t give up so easily, and we would sack the director of any museum or agency who suggested that such a global treasure could be allowed to disintegrate on our watch. Our society spent hundreds of years driving the red wolf to near extinction. Now we have the opportunity to restore these beautiful animals to the swamp forest galleries and mountain cathedrals of the Southeast, and I hope we don’t let our grandchildren down.

Ron Sutherland, Ph.D. is a conservation scientist for the Wildlands Network in Durham