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By Sarah Morris, The Jonesboro Sun
JONESBORO — The Arkansas State University Red Wolves may be thriving, but the ones found in the wild are not. A group of ASU faculty and students are now hoping to change that.
“It is important because it is a part of our American culture,” said Tom Risch, department chair of the Department of Biological Science. “It is the only carnivore that is uniquely ours, and it went extinct in the wild. So, we’ve heard how we need to save the tigers and elephants in the world. Here is a chance we can save an animal in our own backyard.”
Risch is helping with the organization of a partnership between ASU and the Endangered Wolf Center in Eureka, Missouri. ASU System spokesman Jeff Hankins said the center reached out to the university earlier this year.
“With the A-State mascot, we’re in a unique position to help the center raise awareness about saving the endangered red wolves,” Hankins said. “We’re excited about opportunities for our wildlife ecology students and faculty regarding research and internships.”
Red wolves, which can only be found in the wild in eastern North Carolina, are one of the world’s most endangered canids, the Jonesboro Sun reported. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimates only 45 to 60 remain in the wild.
The predator is used as an example in ASU courses because the reintroduction of a carnivore is rare. One such reintroduction is the USFWS restoration efforts in 1987 to introduce red wolves bred in captivity into North Carolina’s Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge.
Nearly 200 red wolves are maintained in captive breeding facilities throughout the nation. The USFWS cites intense predator control programs and habitat loss for the decline in the wild.
“We’ve slipped backwards in North Carolina,” Risch added. “Fish and Wildlife has restricted areas to limit human interaction. Not because of trouble with humans, but because the wolves are mistaken for coyotes and shot. So, there is no longer nighttime coyote hunting.”
Another problem that is hard to overcome is fear.
“There has never been a case of a red wolf attacking a person yet that would be the concern many think of,” he said. ”… We’ve exterminated them, so they are not going to approach us.”
There is also concern from deer hunters that herds will be decimated, while ranchers fear losing animals, which Risch admits could happen over the course of many years. But he said “what they wouldn’t be likely to experience is disease from wild animals.”
Wolves would also help maintain healthier deer herds.
For the reintroduction to be successful, Risch said society must overcome its fear of wolves. There are benefits to that success.
“There is a phrase that has come up in ecology called trophic cascade, that if you take out the top, all these changes come through throughout,” Risch said. “So one of the things that was noticed in Yellowstone after the reintroduction of the gray wolves into that area was that different plants were flowering that had been missing from the park for years. Probably because the deer were too dense before there were wolves.”
The removal of wolves as the top predator causes increases in mesopredators, such as raccoons, opossums and foxes, which cause a different set of problems when they come in contact with humans.
“There is a balance in the ecosystem and, without wolves, it is not functioning as it should,” Risch said.
One example of the importance a single species can play in an ecosystem is the sea otter. Risch said studies have shown sea otters are a keystone species in the health and stability of nearshore marine ecosystems because they eat the sea urchins and invertebrates that graze on giant kelp.
Without sea otters, the kelp forests can be destroyed, causing havoc on the diversity of animals that depend upon that habitat for survival, Risch said.
Risch said his students are excited to help better educate people, work to conserve red wolves and work alongside a world-class conservation center.
“What we’re hoping to do at this point is have some students intern at the center and help with education,” Risch said. “These animals are part of our national heritage, so we should be conserving them.”