Song of the South – Restoring and Protecting America’s “Other Wolf”
Ask wolf fans or foes what they know about wolves, and you’ll get no shortage of facts, misinformation and opinions–almost invariably about gray wolves. Ask those same folks about red wolves, and most likely the response will be blank stares and silence. Wolf calendars don’t feature glossy red wolf photos, and television doesn’t devote prime time to documentaries about the gray wolf’s southern cousin. However, Canis rufus is North America’s “other wolf,” but like a sibling standing in the shadow of a famous brother or sister, the red wolf often yields the spotlight. That’s understandable in some ways. For one thing, there aren’t many red wolves, and they live only on a remote thumb of land on the mid-Atlantic seaboard. And as a gray wolf fan observed recently, “Well, red wolves are pretty, but to me, they don’t look as ‘wolfie’ as gray wolves.” But pretty is as pretty does, and red wolves, with their cliffhanger history and tenacious refusal to be added to the growing list of animal extinctions, have earned some pretty impressive bragging rights.
With their dramatic 1987 return to the wild, they set a precedent for the reintroduction and restoration of gray wolves to Yellowstone National Park and central Idaho. Thirty-one years ago, just as the last red wolves were about to fall off the edge to extinction, a bold but perilous plan was implemented to remove the last of the Southeast’s top predators from a sliver of marginal habitat along the Gulf Coast of Texas and Louisiana. Selectively bred at Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium in the state of Washington, the first red wolves were released, with little public fanfare, into the Alligator National Wildlife Refuge in northeastern North Carolina. In addition, in recent years red wolves have spearheaded a bold restoration technique called “pup fostering” where captive-born pups are placed into the dens of wild red wolf mothers and raised by a wild pack. Who knew that would work when it was first done? But it did, and it does.
So what’s the real story on the gray wolf’s enigmatic cousin? Actually, red wolves and gray wolves are more similar to one another than they are different. Like gray wolves, red wolves live in families called packs with Mom and Dad in charge, and they howl to communicate with one another and perhaps for reasons we will never know. They are top predators, hunting and killing other animals to survive. Like gray wolves, red wolves enthrall and terrify humans with their impenetrable, golden-eyed stare, and like gray wolves, humans regard them with devotion and reverence as well as hatred and fear.
But some things do distinguish red wolves from gray wolves. For one thing, red wolves are smaller. Adults weigh in at about 80 pounds for a big male and 60 pounds for a robust female. Despite arguments to the contrary, they are red – not a flaming auburn like an Irish setter, but a dark autumn red, a rich russet that is splashed behind their long ears and on the backs of their legs and streaked through the gray and black mantles on their shoulders. Tall and lean as marathon runners, their avoidance of contact with people means they remain, despite recent intensive research, something of a mystery. Their diet includes white-tail deer, but a large portion of their menu consists of raccoons and nutria. The nutria, a huge rodent brought to the U.S. from South America, is an invasive species that wreaks havoc on aquatic plants in the eastern wetlands. Red wolves love nutria for lunch and dinner. Some local residents claim wild turkey and quail numbers have increased since red wolves are keeping the nest-raiding raccoon population in check.
Before ferocious persecution by humans and habitat loss drove red wolves to functional extinction in the wild, few people had studied them and little was known about them. Now the only place in the world where they live in the wild is just west of North Carolina’s Outer Banks, a region of haunting beauty with its impenetrable marshes, mixed forests , vast corporate agriculture spreads, communities tucked far off the main highway and four national wildlife refuges.
Despite tough challenges, red wolves are hanging on, doing the job for which nature designed them – finding food, raising pups, sending their haunting choruses floating out on star-studded nights over the bogs and estuaries and lush fields of cotton and soybeans. Wolf educators like to say red wolves are the tenors and sopranos in the wolf choir. Gray wolves are the altos and the baritones. The wild population remains stable at 100 to 130 animals, approximately 76 of which wear tracking collars. Intensive management and monitoring are critical to the species’ long-term survival because the threats are serious and ongoing. Like eastern wolves, red wolves are related to coyotes, and being on that branch of the evolutionary tree means they can and will sometimes breed with coyotes to produce hybrid offspring. That probably doesn’t matter in the light of eternity, but to red wolf managers who are tasked with preserving an endangered species, it matters greatly.
Two other serious threats cause sleepless nights for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Red Wolf Recovery Team and for educators and advocates. Young red wolves are about the same size as the big eastern coyotes, and some of them get shot during hunting season every year in the late fall and winter. Some are killed during other times of the year, too. It’s open season on coyotes all year round in North Carolina, so gunshot mortality is a major impediment to red wolf restoration despite the hefty reward offered for information leading to the successful prosecution of anyone killing an endangered red wolf. And because coastal North Carolina is the only region in their historical range where red wolves now live, the threat of sea level rise looms in the perhaps not-too-distant future. The recovery plan for red wolves mandates that two other areas be designated in the Southeast for red wolves. This is a critical need. If we pay attention to a lot of the best science, the red wolf’s home could be under water several generations from now.
Flooding in red wolf country happens on a fairly regular basis anyway because of severe storms including hurricanes like Isabel (2003) and Irene (2011) that rake the inland coastal areas where the red wolves live. Fire, too, can pose problems both for people and wildlife. The compacted soil of the region, called pocosin, burns like peat or like coal deep in a mine. Once a fire starts, it’s hard to put out. But, as Dr. David Rabon, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Red Wolf Recovery Team coordinator says, “The red wolves and the other critters just hunker down and wait it out,” when natural disasters occur. That’s pretty much true with wildlife everywhere. The problem for the red wolves is that if a catastrophic event were to wipe them out or seriously reduce their numbers, the song of the South could become a memory. The same can’t be said for gray wolves because their numbers are stable and high in the Upper Midwest, the Northern Rockies and in Alaska and Canada.
The triumph of red wolf restoration stands as a monument to the success of recovering a species on the brink of disappearing forever. But it’s not realistic to predict a time in the near future where the people working to help red wolves survive in the wild can relax and say, “We did it! They’re on their own!” Coyotes live everywhere in the East now, and there is virtually no way to keep red wolf country free of the wolf’s smaller and highly-resilient cousin. Hunting is part of North Carolina’s “way of life,” and while many sportsmen and women have no interest in killing a canid out on the edge of soybean field, some of them do. There is no shortage of coyotes, but every red wolf death is a blow to the fragile population.
The Red Wolf Coalition, the only citizen group teaching about and advocating for red wolves, works on a shoestring budget and sheer determination to get more people invested in saving this rare and imperiled predator. The Coalition’s target audiences are teachers, hunters, local residents and the thousands of tourists on their way through red wolf country to the beaches of the Outer Banks. The organization’s mission is to educate, but the Coalition unapologetically promotes red wolf restoration, including active support of the efforts to prosecute lawbreakers who kill red wolves.
Information about the Red Wolf Coalition can be found on www.redwolves.com. The red wolf has friends all over America and Europe, and this community of supporters is helping to ensure that the song of the South is never silenced. That almost happened fifty years ago. Red wolf advocates won’t let history be repeated.
Cornelia Hutt is the chair of the board of directors of the Red Wolf Coalition. She is a member of the work team for International Wolf magazine, the International Wolf Center’s quarterly publication.