A red wolf running. Photo by Curtis Carley for USFWS

By Pat Garber

Hyde County is home to American red wolves, one of the most endangered species of animals on the planet. While they are hidden within dark swaths of swampland, in distant government offices their fate is being decided. It doesn’t look promising.

Seven hundred years ago red wolves roamed this area, along with most of the southeastern forests of the United States. They co-existed with the Native American people who lived here, and they were still prolific when Europeans arrived in the late 16th century. Captain John Smith described them in 1624 in “A General History of Virginia,” which included North Carolina. 

Europeans brought over their “Old World” attitudes toward wolves, however, and began a campaign to exterminate them along with other predators. By the 1800s red wolves had been gone from North Carolina for well over 100 years and by the 20th century red wolves were losing their last fight for survival.

A few remained in a tiny area of swampland in coastal Louisiana and Texas in the 1960s, but they were succumbing to the pressures of a polluted environment, inbreeding with coyotes, and human predation. As late as 1965 a federal predator control program was still trying to eradicate the few remaining wolves in this country. In 1973, Congress passed the Endangered Species Act and placed the red wolf under its protection. It was, alas, too late. The red wolf was officially declared extinct in the wild in 1980.

At the Point Defiance Zoo in Tacoma, Washington, however, red wolves still existed. Forty genetically true specimens had been captured by biologists and placed in a breeding program there in the late ’70s. After several years of decline they finally began to mate and by 1984, their numbers had more than doubled. Wildlife biologists with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFW) began researching areas where the wolves might be released. They chose a remote 200,000-acre area of swampland and pocosin in eastern North Carolina–the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge.

In the late 1980s, four zoo-bred red wolves were quietly released at the site, which spans Dare and Hyde Counties. Red wolves were living in the wild again.

Gradually, more wolves were released. The goal was to have 220 wolves living in the state. Their ability to survive in their new home was still very much in question, and there was much local opposition to their presence. Along with the usual objections to wolf-release programs there was an ongoing debate as to whether the canids were true wolves, or wolf-coyote hybrids.  

A red wolf. Photo courtesy of USFW Service.

Red wolves are smaller and finer boned than gray wolves, with adults weighing between 40 and 90 pounds. Little was learned about them before their extirpation, so it was difficult to make definite identifications. Should they prove to be hybrids, they would lose their federal protection.

Unaware of these debates, the red wolves began to adapt to their new life.

They had to learn to hunt for their own prey and to raise their young in the wild. Some were too familiar with human beings and had to be recaptured. Many were hit by cars, and some drowned. A few were shot by irate farmers who claimed the wolves were killing their stock. Approximately 70 percent of the released wolves died or disappeared, but the remaining ones thrived.

As of 1998, 80 wolves were living in the wild, most of them born there and still reproducing. By 2005, 130 wolves were thriving in eastern North Carolina.

The wolves released in Hyde and Dare Counties have been here for 28 years now and have spread into private lands and other counties. Brakes, however, have been put on the program, once considered a great success story. One of the problems has been inbreeding with coyotes, along with complaints from land-owners. The North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission has asked the federal government to end the program, and USFW is taking a serious look at doing just that.

The Red Wolf Coalition, a worldwide 40,000-member red wolf education group based in Columbia, Tyrrell County, filed a lawsuit against the North Carolina commission in 2014. Represented by the Southern Environmental Law Center, they asserted that it had pressured USFW into stopping its recovery efforts in the state, thus violating the Endangered Species Act. They won the case and a federal court issued a temporary halt on the removal of the wolves. 

Bill Rich, former Hyde County manager whose family owns land in the red wolf territory, opposes the program as it has been run thus far. He says that most Hyde County residents have nothing against the wolves, but against the coyotes which have moved eastward and have overrun the rural county.

Because of the endangered designation of the red wolves, which closely resemble coyotes, he explains, “we are prevented from hunting and trapping coyotes at night, and night-time is really the only time you can kill them. The state allows it, and in other counties residents are allowed to kill coyotes at night. But it is a federal offense here because of the red wolves. Land owners were originally told that if wolves migrated onto their land the USFW would trap and remove them, but that has not happened.”

The only way Rich thinks red wolves can remain in Hyde and Dare Counties is if they are fenced in.

Many wolves have been killed, either hit by cars or shot by local land owners, and according to an April 2018 report there are less than 40 remaining red wolves in the wild.  

According to newly proposed Rule 10(j) wolves would no longer be protected on private land. USFW would manage only the wolves on federal land, which includes the Alligator River Wildlife Refuge and the Dare County Bombing Range, reducing their range from 1.7 million acres to 204,000 acres and their numbers to only two packs and less than 15 wolves.

The new goal would no longer be to have a self-sustaining population but to propagate enough wild wolves for a possible future reintroduction program. There are currently about 200 wolves in captivity nationwide.

USFW took public comments until the end of August and hopes to reach a decision by the end of the year.

Assistant Regional Director Leopold Miranda says they intend to “ask the communities and NGOs (non-government organizations) to help manage the conservation of the species.”  

For USFW information about red wolves, click here.

For red wolf information from the Southern Environmental Law Center, click here.

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