On a crisp, clear night in eastern North Carolina, a group of tourists stands among soft shadows thrown by a three-quarter moon. They’re here to hear, to use Walt Whitman’s words, the “barbaric yawp” of a creature that had once been lost to the wilds and only recently reintroduced–the red wolf.
The tourists stand beside a dirt road in Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge and wait for the leader of this “wolf howling” to call into the dark forest for a group of animals that were once hunted to near extinction. The human pack is remarkably quiet considering that there are about 70 of them, including many children.
Out of the dark, Jennifer Gilbreath, a biologist with the nonprofit Red Wolf Coalition, lets out a melodious howl. It’s not the standard “aaaahhhwwooo” that we all chanted in our younger days. Gilbreath’s howl is so realistic that it’s startling at first; it echoes the tragic lament heard in a real wolf’s call.
After the howl, the silence of the human pack grows deeper. We strain our ears for every sound. “Ooo,” someone says, “is that a howl?” No, turns out just to be an owl. “Oh, how ’bout that?” another tourist whispers. No, it’s just wind whistling through the trees.
And then, it happens. The sound emerges from the forest, slow and low, and then grows until it seems that the forest is teeming with wolves. Eventually, the sound dies down and Gilbreath gives the rest of the human pack a chance to let out our own barbaric yawps, sounding “not a bit tamed” as Whitman would have wanted it. But this howling doesn’t compare to Gilbreath’s melodious version, and the forest is silent in response. Still though, the group has had an unforgettable experience of the true “call of the wild.”
A generation ago, this experience was virtually unavailable in the East. The number of full-bred red wolves (smaller cousins of the western gray wolves) had dwindled to less than a score. But with a captive-breeding/reintroduction program in full swing in North Carolina, more than 100 of these animals now roam the wild, with hopes of more to come. Although threats still exist, experts say red wolves are well on the road to recovery.
Fossil evidence reveals that the red wolves’ range once reached from central Texas and the southeastern Atlantic and Gulf coasts north to the Ohio River valley and central Pennsylvania–and perhaps even farther north. Red wolves, which are generally brown and buff colored but sometimes have a reddish tint behind their ears, and on their muzzles and the back of their legs, generally weigh between 45 and 80 pounds as adults. Their cousins, the western gray wolves, weight 80 to 120 pounds when fully grown. Both species of wolves were nearly wiped out in the lower-48 United States in the 20th century, but the red wolf was much closer to annihilation.
Suffering from habitat loss, indiscriminate hunting and the spread of the western coyote to the East, red wolves were so badly depleted that wildlife experts in 1980 decided to capture the last wild specimens. Under the auspices of the Endangered Species Act, federal biologists created a captive breeding program for eventual reintroduction. At that time, only 14 captured animals were considered full-bred red wolves and healthy enough to be the forbears of future generations. The removal of the last red wolves gave the animal the dubious distinction of being one of the few large predators in modern times to become, at least temporarily, extinct in the wild.
The wolves spent seven years in captivity before the first reintroductions began at the newly created Alligator River refuge. Unlike a similar reintroduction that started in 1991 at Great Smoky Mountains National Park and was abandoned in 1998, the Alligator River program has been a howling success.
Although eastern North Carolina’s habitat is in no way pristine, it has an abundance of the furry and feathery creatures on which red wolves feed. According to Bud Fazio, supervisor of the wolf recovery program for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the wolves eat “pretty much anything from mice up to deer.” In fact, the animals’ consumption of critters considered “nuisances” by farmers–deer, raccoons, beavers and the non-native nutria, a large rodent that looks a bit like a beaver–helps endear the predators to some of the locals.
Although some members of the community oppose the presence of red wolves, the North Carolina program has generated less controversy than reintroductions of gray wolves in the Rocky Mountains. Whereas gray wolves occasionally feed on livestock in the West (but still count for less than one-tenth of one percent of all livestock deaths in that region), only one red wolf has been removed from the wild for killing livestock (a goat) in the 18-year history of the reintroduction program.
Because local attitudes are fairly tolerant, many wolf advocates believe that a tourist economy centered on red wolves can be created in the area. To explore this possibility, Defenders of Wildlife recently completed a survey, funded by the Alex C. Walker Educational and Charitable Foundation, of local residents and tourists. When asked, “If the red wolf could be used as a marketing draw to bring tourists and tourist dollars to the area, would that make you feel better about the red wolf?” 100 percent of the local respondents answered “yes.”
Plans for building a center where locals and visitors can see red wolves, hear their howls and learn more about the creatures have been germinating. The Red Wolf Coalition, based in Columbia, North Carolina, is leading the charge to build the center, which would provide the only opportunity to view red wolves in the region.
“Wolves provide not just ecological benefits but also an economic boost,” says Nina Fascione, a board member of the Red Wolf Coalition and the vice-president for field conservation with Defenders. “By developing environmentally friendly tourism based on the wolves and the area’s other unique natural treasures, the community can change red wolves from a perceived liability to an asset.”
Despite the potential of wolf-based tourism, the animals are not always wholeheartedly embraced by the local community. “You’re always going to find people that hate predators–people that aren’t sure they want them around,” Mike Morse, a Fish and Wildlife Service biologist, says over the din of a Cessna engine during a flight to track the red wolf packs. Minutes later, as if to prove the point, he receives a mortality signal on his radio-tracking device. When back on the ground, Morse tracks the signal to a collar that has been cut from a wolf and thrown in a culvert. The collar’s transmitter was pierced by a .45-caliber bullet, making it apparent that the wolf had been killed illegally. The poacher didn’t know that the transmitter was still doing its job despite the gaping hole.
Investigators will prosecute the poacher if he is found, but it will be difficult. A wildlife crime scene in a farm or forest is difficult to decipher and, as elsewhere, the resources for wildlife-related investigations in this region are severely limited.
But intentional poaching is only one of the challenges that red wolves face. Because of their small size, red wolves can be confused with coyotes, which are considered “vermin” in North Carolina and can be killed at whim. Misidentifications can lead to accidental poaching.
Coyotes also pose other problems for the wolves. Following the near-elimination of red wolves by European settlers, coyotes moved eastward and occupied former wolf territory. Western coyotes are small, but as they moved east, they bred with domestic dogs and the few remaining red wolves and grew in size. The interbreeding led to such a mixing of genes that when the last wolves were captured for the captive breeding program, there were few left with pure generic strains.
The presence of coyotes has made managing the wolf reintroduction difficult. Fazio says that the biologists “manage coyotes as much as we manage wolves.” To ensure genetic purity, the scientists capture coyotes in the area and sterilize them. When sterilization is impossible, they euthanize them as a last resort.
“If wolves have a choice between breeding with another wolf or a coyote, they’ll breed with the wolf,” Fazio says. “Red wolves will pretty much do the work for themselves” but sometimes need help to make this happen, he adds.
Red wolves are also threatened by disease, severe weather events like hurricanes and, more recently, plans to build a military landing field in the middle of the wolf recovery zone. Domestic dogs introduce mange that can devastate wolf populations if left unchecked. Wildlife managers vaccinate all the wolves that they catch, but with new wolves born every year, some miss their shots at the vet’s office.
Auto traffic also puts a dent in the recovery of red wolves. One of the main roads leading to North Carolina’s popular Outer Banks runs right through the middle of wolf habitat. Plans are underway to expand that road from two to four lanes, which would likely cause more auto-related deaths for wolves and other wildlife in the area. Fazio and his team are asking transportation officials to raise parts of the road above ground to allow wildlife passages, among other steps. But at this point it is unclear whether the biologists will be heard.
For their part, the wolves are successfully facing these challenges. Last spring, a record 55 pups were born in 11 litters. About 100 adults roam the 1.7 million acres in eastern North Carolina that encompasses the wolf’s recovery zone The population goal for the program is 550 animals: at least three wild populations totaling 220, and 330 in captivity. Red wolf biologists believe they are well on their way to achieving that goal.
“The progress the wolves have made is two to three times faster than anyone thought they would make,” Fazio says, crediting the habitat, the community, his staff and the wolves themselves. The wolves are doing so well that discussions have begun about adding reintroduction sites. But, for the time being, Fazio says the recovery team wants to remain “focused on this population so that we can totally understand them before we move out.”
One thing is already understood, though: the return of the red wolf is news worth howling about.
Defenders writer/editor Bill Updike spent a week with wolf biologists in North Carolina last fall and is still trying to perfect his howl.
By Bill Updike
Defenders of Wildlife Magazine Spring 2005 Edition