Ben Roberts, Zoological Manager
This July, I spent four days at the Endangered Wolf Center in St. Louis, Missouri for the Red Wolf Recovery Program’s annual planning meeting. A group of 42 institutions and the United States Fish & Wildlife Service met to discuss current problems facing the Program and how we can help solve those problems, and to make breeding recommendations for the captive population.
The red wolf is a completely separate species from the gray wolf, smaller with reddish coloration and shy and secretive, living and hunting in small family groups. Red wolves have been branded as THE “all-American” wolf being the only large carnivore solely native to the United States. All other large carnivores in the US can also be found in Canada or Mexico.
Red wolves were once widespread throughout the southeastern US, including Georgia. Their population was decimated by the 1960s due to intensive predator control programs and loss of habitat. In 1973, red wolves were declared an endangered species. Efforts were initiated to locate and capture the remaining wild wolves found in the Louisiana and Texas coast area. Of the 17 remaining wolves captured by biologists, 14 became the founders of a successful captive breeding program.
In 1977 the first red wolf pup was born in Captivity at the Point Defiance Zoo in Portland, Oregon. The United States Fish and Wildlife Service declared red wolves extinct in the wild in 1980. In 1987 the reintroduction of red wolves back into the wild started with animals being released into Alligator National Wildlife Refuge in North Carolina. By 2012, the wild population had grown to an estimated 100-120 wolves. In 2014, the wild population was estimated to have dropped to only 50-75 animals. Studies presented at the planning meeting attest that the wild population is dependent on the captive population for reintroduction purposes. These two separate populations are so intertwined that the chance of them surviving without each other long term is slight. Simply put, wild red wolves will not survive without the reintroduction of captive animals due to the high mortality rate of the current wild population. The majority of red wolf deaths are connected to humans.
Unfortunately, the state of North Carolina has requested that the USFWS round up the entire wild wolf population, put them in captivity, and declare the species extinct in the wild. As of now, the Recovery Program is in a state of holding while the USFWS tries to figure out what to do. The decision is supposed to be made by the end of the calendar year.
I find it baffling that, when ONE lion is poached or ONE rhino is hunted, legally, in countries on the other side of the world- the entire country explodes on the internet. Yet, when our own government is considering purposefully eliminating a species from the wild in our own backyard- it doesn’t even make a blip on anyone’s radar. We’re not talking about removing a single animal; were talking about the elimination of an ENTIRE SPECIES. A week after Cecil the lion blew up the internet, four Congressmen proposed a bill to prohibit importing trophies of animals that the USFWS are considering listing as endangered. How many congressmen are actively involved in writing legislation to protect the last 75 red wolves in the world already declared critically endangered? You guessed it, zero.
Chehaw, on the other hand, is refusing to give up on the species just yet. Dr. Rebecca Harrison with the USFWS’s Red Wolf Recovery Program will be coming to Chehaw on September 17 to give a lecture on red wolves and the Recovery Program. During her time here, she will spend the day meeting staff, looking at our current set up, and checking out the new site for Chehaw’s piece of the Recovery Project. A new exhibit and holding facility is planned as part of the new Bear/Red wolf exhibit(s) expansion. We are planning to have approximately 5-6 exhibits each about 1,000 square feet. The Red Wolf Recovery Center at Chehaw will be built specifically to aid in, not only increasing numbers by captive breeding, but also to assist the USFWS relocate wild nuisance animals.
Chehaw is committed to seeing the Red Wolf Recovery program flourish and red wolves once again roaming their native habitat. We will continue to support the program, the captive partners in the Species Survival Program (SSP), and the USFWS agents who have worked so hard over the past 40 years to make it as successful as possible. If we have any say, this is not how the story of the red wolf- America’s wolf- will end.