She was young and shy, and showed no interest in him. He was new to the neighborhood, and besides, she already had a boyfriend, albeit one with a sketchy reputation. But the matchmakers, determined to lure her to the better choice, used a time-honored ploy: get her mother’s approval.
To the relief of Joe Madison, North Carolina program manager and wildlife biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Red Wolf Recovery Program, putting that relocated male red wolf into an acclimation pen at Alligator National Wildlife Refuge with the older resident female worked like a charm.
“Even though she was no longer breeding age, the thinking was if she accepted him into the area, then so would her daughter,” Madison explained during a virtual presentation held by the agency last week to discuss updates on the newly revitalized recovery program. “Over time … the daughter would visit the pen regularly. We timed the release of that male with when that younger female was likely in heat. After his release, he pretty much went straight to that female.”
The wild red wolf female quickly dumped the coyote she had been hanging out with, Madison added, and within a couple of weeks, the newly freed male red wolf dispatched his smaller rival.
Not only did he successfully bond with the young female, Madison said, the male wolf sired a litter of six pups this past spring — an unusually large litter for the critically endangered red wolf. And as of September, the now-teenage pups are still roaming in the same area with their mother and grandmother.
That is part of a positive shift for the species, which just a few years ago, after public and political hostility spurred agency cuts in the recovery effort, had seemed all but doomed in the wild.
But at a public in-person meeting held in Columbia last week, there was no adversarial remarks directed toward the refuge staff from the 50 or so attendees, Kim Wheeler, executive director of the nonprofit Red Wolf Coalition, said in a later interview.
“The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has definitely recommitted to the (recovery) program, and part of that is transparency,” she said. “To me, that’s very encouraging … That’s not just words, it’s resources.”
It’s been a while since things were looking up for the species, the only known wild population of red wolves in the world. The spring litter of pups was the first born in the wild since 2018. New enclosures have been built to help introduce more captive-bred wolves into the 1.7-million-acre recovery area on public and private lands in rural Hyde, Tyrrell, Dare, Beaufort and Washington counties.
Despite some deaths from vehicles or gunshots, there are signs that the mortalities are decreasing thanks to better communication with hunters and landowners, reflective collars on wolves and signage on highways warning drivers to look out for red wolves.
As a policy, U.S. Fish and Wildlife staff don’t anthropomorphize wild wolves such as giving them names or birthday parties. In fact, they take pains to have as little contact as possible, in order to ensure that the animals maintain their fear of humans. But it’s helpful to have supporters of the Red Wolf Recovery Program cheer the survival successes for the social and intelligent creatures from the sidelines.
With the proposed update to the red wolf management plan expected to be finalized and implemented in 2023, the agency plans to continue its efforts to rebuild the species’ wild population, building on proven conservation strategies and protective measures as well as looking ahead to expanded options for habitat and genetic diversity.
Released in June, the draft revised recovery plan is open for public comments through Oct. 28. It is the first version of the recovery plan to be updated under the guidance of a 51-member recovery team that includes representatives from state wildlife agencies, wildlife and zoo biologists and researchers, residents and others.
“Part of that is a focus on collaborative conservation — that is, enhancing collaboration and communication and community and partner engagement,” Red Wolf Recovery Program Coordinator Emily Weller said during the presentation. “Because we’ve fully acknowledged that successful recovery for the red wolf will require collaborative efforts with those that are have a vested interest in red wolves, but most especially landowners in the local community.”
The wolf recovery staff has been meeting monthly with the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission, which oversees coyotes, deer, bear and other animals that live alongside wolves on the landscape, to share information and discuss coordination on management actions and revenue issues.
The agency, which is charged with administering management of endangered and threatened species, has also been providing more regular updates on social media and its website about red wolf activities. The wildlife service’s red wolf public phone hotline has also been improved to ensure more timely responses.
A new outreach program for landowners, called Prey for the Pack, has been launched by Fish and Wildlife to provide funding and technical assistance to landowners for habitat work to meet their land management goals. In exchange, landowners agree to allow red wolves on their land and for them to be monitored.
And in the interest of clarity, the wild red wolves will no longer be described in government-speak. Instead of being referred to as “the North Carolina nonessential experimental population,” or the NCNEP, the wolves will instead be known simply as the eastern North Carolina red wolf population.
Although the NCNEP will remain as the legal designation, Weller said, the words “nonessential” and “experimental” were often misinterpreted in a way that undermined the value of the species.
Historically, the red wolf had once roamed much of the Southeast, but overhunting and habitat loss diminished its population. In 1973, the species was listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act, and subsequently it was declared extinct in the wild. Meanwhile, Fish and Wildlife had captured some wild red wolves scattered on land in Louisiana, and in 1987 four pairs of their offspring were transferred to Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge in Manteo.
Over the years, the recovery team used innovative management tactics to limit coyote hybrids, release captive-bred adults into the wild and encourage wild red wolf mothers to foster newborn captive-bred pups. By the mid-2000s, there were about 130 wild wolves in the five-county recovery area. But in recent years, with much of those management strategies discontinued, the numbers of known wolves had plummeted to as few as seven.
Amid a series of lawsuits from conservation groups that accused the agency of violating the Endangered Species Act, among other violations, the U.S. District Court in January 2021 ordered the agency to draft a plan to resume release of captive red wolves into the North Carolina recovery area. According to Fish and Wildlife, the first two phases have been implemented, and Phase 3, covering through May 2023 and coordinated with the state Wildlife Resources Commission, was submitted to the court in September.
Currently, there are 10 red wolves within the recovery area who are fitted with orange radio collars, Madison said, and as many as 10 other red wolves without collars. Those numbers do not include the six pups, who are not yet big enough to wear the collars.
There were also 13 known mortalities in the last two years, 11 of them captive-born releases. Five of the deaths were from vehicle strikes, three from gunshots, and three had unknown causes. In addition, there are 243 captive red wolves in 49 zoos and other facilities throughout the country.
It is illegal under the Endangered Species Act to shoot red wolves. Although coyotes are smaller than red wolves in weight and height, they look fairly similar from a distance or in low light.
All wild wolves are tracked and monitored. If they stray on certain private land, the wildlife service will contact the property owner. Several wolves who seemed too comfortable in populated areas have been removed and returned to captivity, Madison said. There are also 24 sterilized coyotes, which wear white reflective collars, that are monitored by the Wildlife Commission.
It is legal to shoot coyotes during the daytime within the red wolf recovery area, but Madison urged people not to kill collared coyotes, which can’t breed but keep other coyotes from entering their territory. In the process, the sterile animals are helping to keep the coyote population down by holding territory, he explained. The adaptive management strategy, developed around the late 1990s, also prevents coyotes and wolves from mating, among other good effects.
“One of the reasons it was developed was that within well-established red wolf territories, you have a lower amount of total canids, and it’s made up mostly of red wolves,” Madison said. “I don’t mean that it will necessarily exclude coyotes, but there’s a much, much lower coyote population.”
In general, coyotes — a highly adaptable species, inspiring some to compare them to cockroaches and rats — have greater need for prey and diversity of prey, including many bird species, he added. They also have an uncanny survival tool: If one coyote is removed, it typically will be replaced by several coyotes.
“And areas where there are no red wolves,” Madison said, “there’s a much higher total density of canids made up of coyotes because they have much smaller home range sizes.”
Even though red wolves avoid people, once in a while they’ll attack livestock or other animals. To address that concern, the Red Wolf Coalition has developed a depredation compensation program to reimburse landowners who lose livestock to the wolves.
“But as part of that, I want to tell folks that there’s only been nine documented incidences of red wolf depredation over the 35 years since their reintroduction into North Carolina,” Madison said. “So, it’s an extremely rare occurrence.”
And when reports are investigated, he added, the real culprit is usually found to be a dog, fox, bear or raccoon. Or, of course, a coyote.