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By Emily Woodbury
Photo Victoria Ziglar | Endangered Wolf Center
Ash is one of the first residents of the Endangered Wolf Center’s new American red wolf habitat.
This spring, for the first time in more than 20 years, four critically endangered American red wolves were released into the wild. Two of the four wolves came from the Endangered Wolf Center in Eureka, Missouri, where they were born two years ago.
“We’ve gotten to see them grow up, learn their personalities, get to know them,” said Regina Mossotti, director of animal care and conservation at the center. “And the fact that they get a chance to run free now; it’s just incredible.”
Fewer than 20 American red wolves live in the wild throughout the U.S., all in a refuge in North Carolina. The two Missouri-born wolves were flown there last month to join the population, providing a critical source of new genetic diversity.
Mossotti, who also serves as the AZA Red Wolf Species Survival Plan vice coordinator, flew to North Carolina with the wolves. She worked with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to outfit them with radio collars, allowing biologists to track their habits and well-being once released.
“The American red wolf is native to the entire southeastern United States … from Missouri over to the east coast down to Florida and Texas,” Mossotti said. “We actually used to have them here in Missouri, which is one of the reasons they’re my favorite, but we don’t have them here anymore.”
The Fish and Wildlife Service launched a recovery program in the 1980s to save the wolf and reintroduce it into North Carolina. But after initially finding success, increasing the population to 150, numbers have plummeted. Poaching, car accidents and health problems have all been factors.
Their hope is for the wolves to have pups in the near future, helping to boost the species’ wild population. Mossotti said that having more wolves in the wild will benefit other native species as well.
“Wolves actually benefit the ecosystem,” Mossotti said, citing the successful 1995 reintroduction of gray wolves in Yellowstone.
At that time, she said, “Gray wolves had been extinct in that area for over 70 years, and the ecosystem had completely changed. Elk and deer populations skyrocketed without having a large carnivore there to help keep them in check, and so the [elk] were eating everything down to the dirt. When trees would fall, there were no new trees to replace them. Pollinator plants that were important for birds and butterflies were gone.
“When the wolves came back, they started to bring the elk population back down to a healthy level,” Mossotti continued. “They brought it to a level that the ecosystem could sustain. They started to see the plants come back and the birds and the butterflies and fish and ducks and a whole bunch of things.
Regina Mossotti joins St. Louis on the Air
“Everything is so connected in nature,” she added.
The Endangered Wolf Center was founded 50 years ago by former St. Louis Zoo director (and host of “Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom”) Marlin Perkins.
“Of all the animals that he saw and he worked with throughout his career, he saw the wolf as the most important and the most misunderstood in terms of helping the ecosystem,” Mossotti said.
Tours of the center can be reserved at http://www.endangeredwolfcenter.org. The facility also hosts summer camps for kids until the end of July.
“St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill and Lara Hamdan. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.