Recovering A Recovery Program

Society Staff Blog:

Recovering A Recovery Program

[Full disclosure: Mark MacAllister serves on the Board of Directors of the Red Wolf Coalition.]

The conservation story of the American Red Wolf (Canis rufus) is well-known. On the very edge of extinction in the early 1970s, the planet’s only wild red wolves were removed from their last stronghold on the Gulf Coast of Texas and Louisiana and placed into captivity at the Point Defiance Zoo in Washington state. A science-based breeding program at Point Defiance successfully increased their numbers until, in 1987, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS) began releasing wolves into the red wolf recovery area, a four million acre zone in northeastern North Carolina composed of both government-owned and private lands.

Since this was the USFWS’s first attempt at reintroducing a canid species into its historical habitat, the early years of the wild red wolf program were difficult, and many released animals died from a variety of causes ranging from vehicle strikes to disease to gunshot. However, the red wolves began to reproduce in the wild and, soon, a “wild-born” population began to flourish in the recovery area. By 2012, there were some 120 wild red wolves in northeastern North Carolina, with the USFWS actively working to monitor the animals and to understand how they made use of the landscape.

Not long thereafter, though, the the recovery program took a hard turn toward trouble. A few influential individuals living in and around the recovery area began to actively oppose red wolf conservation, and red wolf mortalities—particularly from gunshot—began to rise. At the same time, the USFWS reduced its management of the area, to the point where it no longer actively monitored wild wolves on the ground or worked to increase the population’s size. In response to USFWS inactivity, several non-profit wildlife organizations, including the Red Wolf Coalition (RWC), successfully brought a series of lawsuits designed to force the USFWS to, once again, meet its obligations under the Endangered Species Act to conserve red wolves.

Even with these courtroom victories, by early 2022 the wild red wolf population would be described as “in critical condition” by Kim Wheeler, RWC’s Executive Director, with perhaps as few as 10 wild-born wolves now in the recovery area. While all is not lost, there is a question worth asking: Is it possible to recover a recovery program?

While The Vital Signs Don’t Look Good...
Wheeler’s concerns about the red wolf program’s current status begin, of course, with the plain fact that there are so few animals remaining in the wild. Even more worrying, however, is the lack of reproduction among those wild red wolves. No red wolf pups have been born in the wild since 2018 (though there is of course some chance that some will be born in May of this year). Without wild reproduction, any increases in the wild red wolf population must come by way of releases of captive-born wolves. Captive-born animals, being generally unacclimated to life in the wild, tend to struggle and often find themselves the victims of vehicle strikes; they also may wander onto private property in search of food or shelter, which often brings them into conflict with humans.

Likewise, when there is no natural reproduction in the wild there are also no opportunities to place captive-born pups with experienced, wild mothers. This practice, known as fostering, was pioneered in the red wolf recovery program and has for years successfully worked to increase the number of wolves reared in the wild and thus more likely to survive in the wild. However, if there are no wild-born pups in a particular year, there are no wild mothers with which to place captive-born pups, and another avenue to inceasing the wild population is closed off.

As well, the lack of wild reproduction that hampers the red wolf means that even more captive-born wolves must be released. In Spring 2021, for instance, as many as nine wolves will be released, including a family of five. While captive-born wolves can and do live long lives in the wild, they are more likely than wild-born animals to struggle.

...There Are Some Encouraging Signs
Even with these obvious problems, Wheeler sees some hope for wild red wolves. Primarily, she points to a significant change in the USFWS’s interest in, and support for, the red wolf program, and senses in the USFWS a better understanding of the red wolf’s plight, a willingness to look at managing the program for the long-term and, perhaps more importantly, an increased interest in being more transparent about its activities, as well as about mortalities and other difficult issues.

As well, according to Wheeler, there is a strong feeling among wildlife advocacy groups that red wolf conservation is now a national issue—and that the red wolf’s future is the concern of all Americans, not just those living in northeastern North Carolina. The red wolf enjoys significant public support, says Wheeler, and that support must be translated to pressure on USFWS, as well as on state and federal legislators, as they shape the red wolf’s future.

The Prognosis
How will we know that the USFWS has put the red wolf recovery program back on the road to success? For Wheeler, evidence of wild reproduction will be the crucial first clue that the recovery program is functioning again and that the wolves have at least a chance to make a comeback. There’s also hope that the USFWS will, in conjunction with red wolf advocates, identify and develop a second recovery zone for the species.

As well, there’s the hope that, someday, we will see at least one self-sustaining population of wild red wolves in the United States. This requires red wolves numbering in the hundreds, not in the dozens; it means that wild red wolves will outcompete coyotes for habitat and that wolf/coyote hybridization will be but a minor concern.

And, of course, it means that the USFWS, working in concert with wildlife advocates, will restore its innovative red wolf program and again realize success in conserving America’s red wolf. “In many ways we are starting over, almost like it’s 1986 again,” says Wheeler. “But we know a lot more now than we did then.”

For More Information
To learn more about the red wolf and about efforts to conserve the species, please visit the USFWS red wolf recovery webpage at:

https://www.USFWS.gov/project/red-wolf-recovery

as well as the Red Wolf Coalition’s site at https://redwolves.com.

— Mark MacAllister