A program that saved the red wolf from extinction could come to an end. This week, we talk to a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service official about the experimental Red Wolf Recovery Program and the review that will determine its effectiveness.
Southeastern North Carolina is the only place on Earth where the endangered red wolf roams in the wild. But as their numbers dwindle, a program trying to save them is in doubt. Per request of the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will soon begin an evaluation of the experimental Red Wolf Recovery Program to determine if it should continue. Assistant Regional Director for Ecological Services for the Southeast Region Leo Miranda says these routine evaluations are performed every few years.
“We do this kind of evaluation for many species and as a public agency, I think it’s the right thing to do. Every couple of years, we should be evaluating where are we, where are we heading to see if our efforts are on the right track.”
For this review, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services focuses on three areas to determine the success of red wolf recovery in the wild.
“We currently use the science in making a determination of having a self-sustaining population of red wolves in eastern North Carolina is viable or not, given the hybridization with coyotes issue, as well as climate change, sea level rise that might be a big threat to the species.”
They also evaluate program management within the community, the state and with partnering organizations. Red wolf populations have been showing a steady declining trend, with estimates that only 90 to 110 remain in Beaufort, Dare, Hyde, Tyrrell, and Washington counties. Red wolves can die from a number of reasons; from being hit by a vehicle to natural causes. But Miranda says there’s been a marked increase in red wolf gunshot mortality since 2004.
“Back then, we had, I believe an average of four gunshot deaths a year, in 2013, we had nine. We went up from four to nine gunshot deaths.”
So far, five red wolf deaths have been reported this year; two of those caused by gunshot wounds. In May, a federal judge banned hunting coyotes, which are often mistaken for red wolves, in the five county wolf territory. The ruling came after three advocacy groups sued to block the state’s open season on coyotes.
The possibility of the Red Wolf Recovery Program in northeastern North Carolina shutting down is a real one. A similar red wolf program aimed at establishing a red wolf population in the Great Smoky Mountains ended in 1998 after only seven years. Miranda says both programs – in the mountains and here at the coast – were classified as experimental.
“We decided to end the program because of the low pup survival and the inability of red wolves to establish their home ranges within the national park. We maybe have some of that happening here in eastern North Carolina with most of the wolf packs we have right now established on private land, not in the national wildlife refuge. Although not at the levels as western North Carolina, we have seen some decrease in pup survival.”
Miranda says Fish and Wildlife Services could decide to continue the program as is, make changes or cancel the program all together. He says it’s too soon to predict how a decision could impact the wild red wolf populations currently calling eastern North Carolina home, especially if they cancel the program.
“If we decide to go there, then we need to define what we need to do with the animals that remain in the population.”
In a letter to the Wildlife Resources Commission, the US Fish and Wildlife Service committed to have a draft scope of work for the evaluation. Miranda says they hope to have it ready by next week. The Red Wolf Recovery Program receives about $1.3M a year for restoring the wild population, making red wolves the species with the most funding invested by the Service. But the Program entails more than just growing the number of wild red wolves. Nearly 200 red wolves are currently captive in 40 breeding facilities scattered throughout the United States. For more information on the Recovery Program and to see pictures of the red wolf, go to publicradioeast.org.