Barely two weeks after a federal court ordered the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to update its management of the critically endangered red wolf population in northeastern North Carolina, a team of scientists has been asked for the second time to determine if the red wolf is wolf enough.
In a report released Tuesday by an ad-hoc committee with the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, details were provided on research plans that will evaluate the taxonomy of previously unknown potential red wolves in Louisiana, as well as strategies to examine evolutionary relationships between red wolf populations.
Meanwhile, the only remaining wild population of red wolves in Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge has withered from its peak of about 150 to about seven collared wolves, about half of which is approaching old age. Conservation efforts have suffered under years of bitter conflict with landowners, political controversy and questions about coyote hybridization.
“It’s never easy to decide what a species is or isn’t — it’s one of those easier-said-than-done tasks,” committee chair Joseph Travis with Florida State University said during a webinar on Tuesday about the report, “Evaluation of Applications to Carry Out Research to Determine the Taxonomy of Wild Canids in the Southeastern United States.” “But the controversy extends beyond the scientific realm because the red wolf has been the subject of extensive conservation and recovery efforts that are not universally positive — let’s face it.”
The academies’ report on the new research, commissioned by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, was issued on the heels of an agreement between the agency and the nonprofit Center for Biological Diversity, approved Oct. 2, that requires a final revised recovery plan for red wolves be completed by Feb. 28, 2023.
Considering the difficulty of restoring the population in North Carolina, the center wants the agency to reintroduce red wolves at other suitable locations.
According to the center’s October 2019 report, “Return for America’s Red Wolves,” a total of 20,000 square miles of habitat on public lands in North Carolina, Florida, Virginia, West Virginia, Arkansas and Alabama would support about 500 breeding pairs of red wolves.
“Each of these areas meet basic requirements for successful reintroductions,” the report said, “including adequate prey base, potential for reproductive isolation from coyotes (to reduce hybridization), connectivity to other possible reintroduction sites, and low human and road densities.”
The center faults Fish and Wildlife for dropping successful management tactics such as coyote sterilization, releasing captive wolves to the wild and pup fostering that contributed to the steady growth of the wild red wolves in the five county recovery area.
“I don’t think you could ever recover such a widespread species if the efforts are only focused in North Carolina,” Collette Adkins, the center’s carnivore conservation director, said in an interview.
Adkins said that the center has not received any response from the agency seeking information about its plans.
“It just looks like they’re completely stalled,” she said. “We want them to at least start identifying some sites so that they can begin that long process. Because they’re going to need to build public support and find the right scientists to collaborate with, and they’re just not doing it.”
The Fish and Wildlife Service is committed to working together, through partnership, to complete the management plan update on time, Phil Kloer, public affairs specialist for the agency’s Southeast region, said in an email, responding to an inquiry.
“Updating this recovery plan is a priority for the Service,” he said.
In the last 50 years or so, Travis said, scientists have learned that it is “not unusual at all” to see species with a history of admixture — combining of genes between different species. For instance, he said, some groups of humans have Neanderthal genes, but it doesn’t make them any less of a valid species.
“But it can make it more difficult to decide what a red wolf really is — and was,” he said.
The new research will build on the National Academies’ 2019 report that was requested by Congress and sponsored by Fish and Wildlife, which confirmed that red wolves were a distinct species.
The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine bills itself as a nonprofit, nongovernmental group that provides independent and objective advice to benefit society, advance science and promote progress.
Kloer said that Fish and Wildlife requested the new research to continue its efforts “to refine our understanding of the differences and similarities between what is currently defined as the distinct species of red wolf from the historic red wolf species genome.
“FWS requested that (the Academies of Sciences) develop a research strategy that would identify the types of studies needed to improve understanding of genetic ancestry, phylogenetic relationships, morphology, behavior and ecology,” Kloer wrote in the email.
According to the academies’ report, genetic analysis will be looking at the species dating to pre-1800, known as the ancient period before colonists started moving west; the historical period 1800 to 1920, before coyotes started moving east; and the modern period, post-1920, looking for distinction in lineages and evidence of genetic continuity.
Travis said that there are very few ancient red wolf specimens to examine.
“It’s not going to be easy to get ancient DNA,” he said.
The sampling and genome sequencing will seek to answer questions about relationships between the North Carolina population of red wolves and newly discovered Gulf Coast red wolves, as well as to what degree red wolf genes are mixed with other canids, such as coyotes.
“There may be few issues as challenging as the canid issue because of how rapidly they diverged … and then what looks like a considerable exchange of genes,” Travis during the webinar. “Nonetheless, we think this could be a model for the way these kind of questions could be investigated in the future.”
What is clear to conservation groups right now is that the red wolf won’t be able to survive much longer in the wild unless their management is quickly improved.
Not only should Fish and Wildlife resume its prior successful management tactics in Alligator River, it should release more wolves into the wild from the more than 200 wolves in captivity to lands in North Carolina and at other locations, said Ron Sutherland, chief scientist at the nonprofit Wildlands Network.
At the same time, he said, the agency must invest in landowner outreach.
“There is no valid reason why the federal government can’t step in with emergency releases of captive red wolves to save the wild population this winter,” Sutherland said in an email. “Personally I think that a robust financial incentives program is what we need to bring farmers back on board with hosting the red wolf on their properties in eastern NC, as well as in any other states where reintroduction programs are started.
“Landowners should be able to make as much or more money supporting America’s red wolf recovery program as they can leasing their farms out to deer hunters,” he said.
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