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By Jim McCormac
Special to The Columbus Dispatch
Photo A female Red Wolf approaches Jim McCormac in the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge in North Carolina.
Jan. 11 was an unforgettable day. I was in the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge in eastern North Carolina, a sprawling 152,000-acre mosaic of habitats. Mostly I was after waterfowl: thousands of northern pintail and tundra swans use the area, along with other species of fowl. My camera was my weapon.
Near day’s end, I was slowly cruising a seldom-used dirt track. I spotted an object nearly a half-mile down the lane and glassed it with 10-power binoculars. A canid! Either a coyote, or something much more special.
I pulled the Jeep off the track, exited with my big telephoto lens and hid behind the vehicle. Amazingly, the animal kept heading my way, periodically stopping to look about. Occasionally, it would make brief forays into the vegetation but then return to the road.
As it got nearer, I saw it was an animal that I had no expectations of seeing: a red wolf!
Fortunately, I was downwind and the wolf apparently was unaware of me. It surely saw the vehicle but apparently wasn’t put off by that. I kept clicking off shots, with the majestic mammal eventually approaching to about 75 feet.
At that point, the wolf fixed my lens with a glare (it still couldn’t see much of me), paused, then trotted into nearby woods and melted away. I suspect it had been hunting rabbits, which often come to road edges near dusk.
The federally endangered red wolf is among the rarest of the rare, with all remaining wild animals on the Alligator River refuge.
It wasn’t always so. Prior to European settlement, red wolves were common and ranged throughout the southeastern U.S., possibly including southern Ohio. As settlers poured into the wilderness, wolf persecution began in earnest. Eventually, governments and farming coalitions offered bounties for their carcasses, and the massacres were successful. In 1978, the red wolf was declared extinct in the wild.
Wolves, possibly including both gray and red wolves, vanished from Ohio much earlier, by the mid-1800’s, victims of relentless persecution.
Fortunately, a number of red wolves had been live-trapped and these formed a captive colony housed at the Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium in Washington State. In 1987, some of these animals were released into Alligator River.
The wolves flourished in their Carolinian refuge, peaking at perhaps 120 animals in the early 2010s.
But lots of people still despise wolves, and many of the Carolina wolves have been shot or poisoned if they dared stray onto private lands. As of now, perhaps 17 wolves remain in the wild. The animal that I saw turned out to be a 12-year-old female, known to biologists as “1849.”
It is no longer possible for apex predators such as wolves to survive in vast swaths of the U.S. Human conflict and habitat loss are the primary reasons, and when human interests are at stake, we virtually always prevail.
If only present-day Americans had the deep connection to nature that the Cherokee people did, wolves would have far less to fear. Cherokees ranged over much of the southeast, knew the red wolf well, and held the mammal in reverence, seldom killing them.
Now, to protect the whole of our biodiversity necessitates protecting vast swaths of land, such as the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge. But even that might not be enough for wide-ranging mammals such as wolves. Time will tell how the red wolf saga plays out, and I’m rooting for the wily canines.
Naturalist Jim McCormac writes a column for The Dispatch on the first, third and fifth Sundays of the month. He also writes about nature at http://www.jimmccormac.blogspot.com.