This is a guest post from conservation biologist Justin Bohling. The USFWS is currently evaluating the future of the Red Wolf Recovery Program and is accepting public comments. Please take action to support the continued operation of the program here.
We have reached a critical junction in the recovery of the critically endangered red wolf (Canis rufus). The story of the red wolf is a complicated one, which has likely contributed to its anonymity. Historically distributed across the southeastern United States, the species was extirpated from much of range due to habitat loss and overharvest. Remnant populations then became threatened by hybridization with coyotes, which expanded in range as the red wolf disappeared. In the 1970s biologists identified only 14 remaining wild red wolves in the species’ last stronghold in a coastal region on the Texas-Louisiana border. Those individuals were transported to Point Defiance Zoo in Tacoma, WA and the species was declared extinct in the wild in 1980.
Just inland from the famed Outer Banks, the five-county Albemarle-Pamlico Peninsula in eastern North Carolina was selected as the location for the first red wolf reintroduction program. At the time, there were no coyotes present in this area. The first wolves were released in 1987 and the population grew slowly. Soon coyotes rapidly colonized the state and in 1993 the first hybridization event between a red wolf and coyote was documented. In response, the US Fish and Wildlife Service and scientists developed an aggressive management strategy to prevent the red wolf from disappearing once again. Since the management program was implemented in 2000, the red wolf population has grown to 80-100 individuals and hybridization with coyotes has been limited.
Despite these successes, the program has suffered recent setbacks. Hunting of coyotes in North Carolina is relatively unrestricted. Although it is illegal to purposefully kill a red wolf, it is allowable to claim a defense of mistaken identity. Red wolves are similar in appearance to coyotes and consequently are occasionally killed. Recently the state allowed the hunting of coyotes at night, which likely exacerbates this problem. Deaths of red wolves from gunshot have increased over time. Not only does this reduce the red wolf population, but it may facilitate hybridization with coyotes by disrupting stable breeding pairs.
Several conservation organizations have sued the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission over its approach to coyote management, which they argue threatens red wolf conservation. A federal judge recently issued an injunction restricting coyote hunting in the five-county recovery area. In response, the state submitted a request to the US Fish and Wildlife Service to evaluate the red wolf program and determine the future of recovery efforts. This includes the possibility of terminating the program.
Along with returning a rare species to the wild, the program has been an inspiration for the recovery of other endangered species worldwide. Given the precarious nature of the red wolf, field and zoo biologists had to experiment with novel techniques to facilitate the preservation of this species. Managers at the Point Defiance Zoo utilized ground-breaking techniques in captive breeding and reproductive biology to manage the small population that are now commonplace in zoos. The red wolf program is one of the first efforts to reintroduce a species into the wild using individuals bred in captivity. Biologists honed techniques such as soft-releases and acclimation periods. Another strategy was the release of captive-born red wolves to isolated islands along the coast of the Southeast US. These islands, which are relatively free of human disturbance, provided wolves the opportunity to learn ‘how to be wild’ while ensuring their safety.
The management strategy itself is an incredible achievement. Combining field surveys with genetic monitoring to limit hybridization is a revolutionary approach. Non-invasive genetic sampling, which involves collecting DNA from biological material such as feces, has been instrumental to monitoring efforts. Researchers using genetics reconstructed the pedigree for the wild wolf population, a feat that provided unprecedented information on the life history of these animals. The Fish and Wildlife Service also experimented with sterilizing coyotes they captured to serve as territorial “placeholders” that would exclude fertile coyotes from colonizing the region. To provide the population with a boost of genetic diversity, federal biologists place captive-born pups into wild litters, a process known as “cross-fostering”. This practice has been adopted by other endangered species recovery programs.
The red wolf program provided a template for the reintroduction of wolves to the western US. Recovery of this species involved a collaborative effort involving federal agencies, wildlife biologists, private landowners, the zoo community, academic researchers, conservation organizations, and additional partners. The recovery program should be trumpeted not only for its achievements in advancing red wolf restoration but inspiring similar efforts across the globe.
As part of the review process, the US Fish and Wildlife Service has requested the public to submit comments regarding their thoughts on the red wolf program. The comment period is open until September 12th and several public meetings will be held. Canceling the program would give the red wolf the dubious distinction of being the first species declared extinct in the wild twice. Twenty-seven years of recovery and innovation have demonstrated the value of this program and it is critical that these efforts be continued.
Justin Bohling is a conservation biologist interested in advancing conservation strategies addressing the threats posed by hybridization and genetic introgression. His PhD dissertation received from the University of Idaho focused on red wolf biology and recovery. He is currently a postdoctoral researcher at the Université Montpellier 2 in France.