The red wolf is an old Ozarks inhabitant that hasn’t had a lot of victories lately.
In fact, it even looked for a while as if the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service had given up on its decadeslong effort to keep the last wild population of red wolves going in North Carolina.
That is until this spring, when four adult red wolves and four pups were released to bolster that lone wild population. Including those eight, there were at most maybe two dozen red wolves in the wild and a couple hundred more in zoos and breeding facilities such as the Endangered Wolf Center in Eureka, Missouri, which contributed two adults for the recent release. It was a positive step for one of the most endangered animals in the world, although advocates wanted more adults released.
The pups appear to have been successfully fostered by the wild population, but three of the adults that were released this spring were hit by vehicles.
Red wolves once roamed much of the southeastern United States, and were at home in the Ozarks until the 1950s and ’60s, when they disappeared from our area due to overhunting, habitat and prey loss, and other threats. The last red wolves in the wild were eventually captured in Texas and Louisiana and bred in zoos, and in 1987, their descendants were released into North Carolina. Despite the arrival of coyotes as well as other challenges, the program showed success, with that wild population growing to between 100 and 150 at its peak. That is until recently, when political pressure became the red wolf’s single biggest threat: the state of North Carolina withdrew support, USFWS reined in its commitment and the wild population collapsed.
Ron Sutherland, of the Wildlands Network, told National Geographic he hopes USFWS will “start standing up for their own program again (and) recommit to working on the ground with the people of North Carolina with the goal of rescuing this population of red wolves.”
We hope so too. Missouri and Arkansas have an interest in seeing that a wild population of red wolves survives.
But we think the federal agency’s biggest mistake has been its unwillingness to find additional homes for red wolves, leaving that sole population in North Carolina vulnerable to political pressure, disease or natural disaster. The agency’s goal has always been three self-sustaining populations in the wild. It tried reestablishing a population in Great Smoky Mountains National Park in the 1990s, which was soon abandoned, but there has been no movement toward this goal in the past 25 years.
Areas have been identified that have a promising mix of public land and prey, with some of the top candidates being in Georgia and elsewhere in North Carolina, and it will take a sustained education effort to build public support for additional reintroductions. But we believe that time has come to find those two new homes.
We urge USFWS to recommit to saving the red wolf in the wild in North Carolina, but more than that, we urge it to recommit to its plan to find additional homes for red wolves in the wild before it’s too late.