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By Jack Igelman
Photo Red wolf near NC coast in January 2016.
A red wolf on North Carolina’s coastal Albemarle Peninsula walks past a conservation scientist’s camera trap in January 2018. Courtesy of Ron Sutherland
With fewer than three dozen red wolves remaining in the wild on the Albemarle Peninsula in Eastern North Carolina, the federal agency that oversees them will consider a change to the existing regulations governing the 30-year-old red wolf recovery program.
Supporters of the program that reintroduced the federally endangered animal into the wild said a change to the current rules would imperil their existence.
But opponents – many of whom are residents of the peninsula – said they hoped the Red Wolf Recovery Program administered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service would soon come to an end. The federal agency manages wildlife refuges and protects federally endangered species.
On June 28, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposed a rule change that would remove management efforts from private lands and focus the program on a small range limited to public lands in Hyde and Dare counties. The agency accepted public comments during an extended window this summer. Based on those comments and a four-year study, U.S. Fish and Wildlife will choose among four management alternatives that may seal the fate of the red wolf in the wild.
Currently, an estimated 30-35 wild red wolves are protected and managed in a five-county area in a rural section of Eastern North Carolina that includes portions of Dare, Hyde, Tyrrell, Washington and Beaufort counties. The program began with the release of captive-bred red wolves in the 152,000-acre Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge in Dare County in 1987. It is the only wild red wolf population remaining on the planet.
Ron Sutherland of Durham, a conservation scientist with the Wildlands Network, said the red wolf program is extremely popular. A 2016 poll conducted by Tulchin Research found that 81 percent of North Carolinians and 64 percent of people living on the Albemarle Peninsula think the government “should make every effort” to help the wild red wolf population and prevent its extinction. According to an analysis by a coalition of conservation groups, 99.8 percent of comments submitted to U.S. Fish and Wildlife supported recovering the red wolf in the wild.
According to Sutherland, however, the agency has already scaled back its oversight of the program and has failed to adapt management strategies for changing threats. For example, he said, U.S. Fish and Wildlife has suspended the release of more wolves since 2015.
“They have sacrificed their own program,” Sutherland said.
Red wolf in a field in May 2018
Populations in conflict: Wolves, coyotes, humans and deer
The red wolf population peaked at roughly 150 in the mid-2000s. Experts suggest that the decline in population is related to two primary threats: mating with coyotes, which diminishes their genetic distinctiveness, and “anthropogenic” mortality – deaths resulting from contact with humans. A 2017 study published in the Journal of Wildlife Management found that between 2007 and 2017, the leading cause of death became car collisions and gunfire.
Coyotes, which were rare in the region at the onset of the program, are now abundant on the Albemarle Peninsula. Hunters have unknowingly killed wolves after confusing them with coyotes. However, critics say some hunters have targeted wolves.
Sutherland said U.S. Fish and Wildlife failed to increase “landowner outreach efforts and law enforcement” to address gunshot deaths.
According to Sutherland, the population crash has paralleled declining government support for the program that has come to a head in the last several years.