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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Red Wolf Roams Again

Air Date: Week of

Red wolves are being reintroduced to the wilds of North Carolina. The animal once ranged throughout the southeast and as far north as Pennsylvania. The effort is hailed as the first successful reintroduction of a predator that had been declared extinct in the wild. But the program has its critics. From Chapel Hill, North Carolina, Diane Toomey reports.


KNOY: This is Living on Earth. I'm Laura Knoy, sitting in for Steve Curwood. The Endangered Species Act just turned 25, and in that quarter century the release of one animal into the wild has stirred perhaps more passion and debate than any of the others: the reintroduction of the wolf. Officials are turning the elusive creatures loose in various locales. There's the gray wolf project in Yellowstone. And recently, Mexican wolves were reintroduced into Arizona, although many of those animals have been shot. But there's a much less publicized wolf recovery program that predates both efforts: the release of red wolves in North Carolina. These animals once ranged throughout the southeast and as far north as Pennsylvania. The effort is hailed as the first success for reintroduction of a predator that had been declared extinct in the wild. But the program has its critics. From Chapel Hill, North Carolina, Diane Toomey reports.

(Truck on gravel road)

TOOMEY: Michael Morse grips the wheel of his flatbed truck as he rumbles down a bumpy gravel road. Today the Fish and Wildlife Service biologist is out to check trap lines.

MORSE: We're headed out into the middle of the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge on the mainland of Deer County. Alligator River's got a real diverse selection of wildlife, going from rabbits and raccoon and white-tailed deer to black bear, American alligator, bobcat, red wolves. We'll be in the farm field section today. It's about 10,000 acres of co-oped farms, where 2 groups of wolves live.

TOOMEY: Michael Morse hopes to catch and radio-collar some of this year's crop of wolf pups, now about 7 months old. It has been more than 2 centuries since wolves roamed here. That's how long ago white settlers exterminated the last of the population in coastal North Carolina. The ones that make their home here now are all the descendants of red wolves born into a captive breeding program started in the 1980s. A decade before that, biologists realized the animals were in danger of being lost to interbreeding with coyotes. So they captured the very last pocket of wild red wolves roaming coastal Louisiana and Texas. Since 1987 the program has released 73 wolves onto 3 refuges here on North Carolina's sandy coastal plains. But many of those original animals got hit by cars or made one too many backyard appearances and had to be recaptured. But ultimately, pups born into the wild adjusted. Morse says an estimated 80 to 100 red wolves now roam close to a million acres in eastern North Carolina, and all but one were born out here.

MORSE: In fact, the only captive-released animal in the program is living right here to our left. He's going on 11 years old now, and that's very, very old for a wolf. We expect him not to be around much longer.

TOOMEY: Despite his advanced years, that wolf is still fathering pups, including the one that will be trapped today.

(Footfalls through growth)

MORSE: See the bushes? There he is.


TOOMEY: In the bushes next to an open field a 30-pound pup is putting up a frantic struggle. Earlier this morning she stepped onto a rubber-padded trap buried in the sandy soil, and then ran into the safety of these bushes. Michael Morse has spotted the hiding place and stands on the metal weight attached to the trap to prevent the wolf from running. The animal steals a panicked glance back at him.


TOOMEY: Michael Morse fits a metal noose around her neck and drags her out of the bushes. The wolf lies motionless now. Her amber eyes stare vacantly beyond him.

MORSE: See how she's lying there. She's almost in a state of shock, I mean just mild shock, because she's just scared. I'm even holding her down.

TOOMEY: This animal will eventually weight up to 65 pounds and stand 2 feet at the shoulder. Smaller than the gray wolves of the American West. And although this is a red wolf, her coat is brown and black. If there is red to be seen it's just a tint on the back of her neck when the sun hits it.

MORSE: What I'm going to do is go ahead and drug her, and take her back to the truck and we'll work her up.

TOOMEY: As the wolf lies prone on the tailgate, he weighs, measures, and vaccinates her against rabies and other diseases. But by now, the anesthesia is wearing off and a bit of a struggle is beginning.

(Sounds of struggle in the truck)

MORSE: She's ready, I'm telling you.

TOOMEY: The wolves have access to well over a half million acres of public land. In addition, almost 20 landowners have given formal permission for the wolves to roam their property. Brian Kelly is the Fish and Wildlife Service's field coordinator for red wolf recovery. Speaking in the middle of a maple and pine forest on the Alligator River refuge, Kelly says these agreements have added hundreds of thousands of acres to the wolves' available range and are the linchpin of this program.

(Bird calls)

KELLY: It takes privately an owner cooperation, especially in the eastern United States where so much of the land is private. And despite what I would characterize as a vocal minority, the private landowners in North Carolina have been wonderful. So public land, complemented by private land, is something that is going to make red wolf restoration possible.

TOOMEY: The vocal minority Kelly refers to is in part made up of landowners who don't want wolves on their property. That's despite the fact that the Fish and Wildlife Service has legally designated these animals as experimental and non-essential. This label means that anyone can kill a wolf if it's caught in the act of attacking people, pets, or livestock. And if a landowner requests it, the Fish and Wildlife Service must remove wolves from private property. While some landowners have problems with the reintroduction program, so do some hunters. Marco Gibbs has been hunting and trapping in this area since he was a boy.

GIBBS: Where the red wolves have moved in, and where you see a lot of red wolves on, the deer population may not drop immediately but it does start declining pretty soon thereafter. And within a few years the deer population is gone. Last year on a piece of land I hunt, we saw about 3 deer the whole season. Now I'm sure there was more than that, but for a big area like that, that's not any deer to be seen.

TOOMEY: But North Carolina hunting records show deer harvests have fluctuated only slightly since wolves were reintroduced here. Others say the Fish and Wildlife Service hasn't made a good faith attempt to remove wolves from their property, but the Agency says it does respond to all requests to remove a nuisance animal, even though removing wolves can mean breaking up a family pack and risking that those animals might never breed or successfully raise pups. Kelly says the sooner the program is deemed a success, the sooner the Federal regulations protecting these wolves will be lifted.

KELLY: We are recovering a critically endangered species. When we are successful, the management of this species will go back to the state of North Carolina. Now, I have no problem with having some sort of harvest on red wolves at some point in time, but we're not going to do that if we're fought every step of the way to accomplish that goal. We are so, so close to losing this animal that we can't even consider that until we get more numbers in the wild.

(Wolves howling)

TOOMEY: The moon on this night is 4 days shy of full. However, these captive wolves, part of the reintroduction of its breeding program, aren't howling at the night sky but at a couple of hunting dogs illegally left out on the refuge.

(Howling continues)

TOOMEY: About 100 people have gathered tonight on a road that cuts through the refuge, all in an attempt to hear what has not been heard in this region for over two centuries. This is senior citizen Janet Davis's first time at a howling, as the events are called.

DAVIS: I can hardly believe it, you know, that those were wolves out there, that close, and howling. And I was hearing them.

TOOMEY: Did you give it a howl?


(Howls, laughs.)

TOOMEY: This public relations effort, sponsored by the Fish and Wildlife Service, is designed to teach people about the wolves. And this tourism may in part help defend the reintroduction program against the legal challenge it now faces. Two North Carolina counties, as well as 2 landowners, have filed suit in Federal Court, claiming the Federal Government has no authority to regulate wolves on private property. That's because, the plaintiffs say, the Federal Government derives its authority from the US Constitution's Commerce Clause, which allows the Federal Government to regulate matters having to do with interstate commerce. Supporters of the reintroduction say that people come from other states to see, listen to, or study these wolves. So their presence does involve commerce. Chris Graebe, an attorney for the plaintiffs, says that logic is flawed.

GRAEBE: Our position is that the Federal Government can't create interstate commerce by building a tourist attraction. It would be tantamount to the Federal Government setting up the Federal Center for Promotion of the American Family and then, having done that, regulating marriage and divorce in the states based on tourism. That kind of argument just won't fly.

TOOMEY: But advocates of the reintroduction say the degree of protection granted an endangered species does in fact impact commerce in a fundamental way. Derb Carter is a senior attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center.

CARTER: We don't know at what point which species is going to cause the whole natural web of life and system to unravel, and certainly that would have tremendous impacts on commerce under anyone's analysis. And that is so closely tied with economic uses that there is a strong and legitimate Federal interest in providing this protection to protect biodiversity.

TOOMEY: The landowners recently lost their case in Federal District Court, but that's almost certainly just the first round in a longer legal battle. Their attorneys say the outcome of this case will affect other wolf reintroductions, but not those of other species. However, program supporters say if the landowners ultimately win, that outcome could seriously impair the ability of the Fish and Wildlife Service to protect any endangered species. In the meantime, the red wolf program has suffered a setback.

(Doors opening)

TOOMEY: The 4 pups that sit quietly in dog kennels in the back of this U-Haul have traveled from one end of North Carolina to the other. This is the only surviving litter from the red wolf reintroduction program at the Great Smokey Mountains National Park, an effort that recently shut down because the wolves there weren't able to catch enough prey on that steep, heavily- forested land. After a couple of days on the road, the wolves are carried into one of the empty pens in the captive breeding area.


TOOMEY: Perhaps too traumatized to recognize an open door when they see one, the 7-month-old pups are encouraged to leave with some banging on their kennels, but finally have to be poured out of their carriers.

(Banging on metal)

TOOMEY: Doing the banging and pouring is Chris Lucash, the Fish and Wildlife Service biologist who oversaw the program in the Smokeys since its inception 7 years ago.

LUCASH: We didn't know what we didn't know back then. We didn't know how ignorant we were of these animals' needs. We had no idea what size of the piece of property we were going to need or how many wolves would fit on a particular size. And that's something that's always going to be changing, and the wolves are going to determine it. We thought heck, the wolves will make do.

TOOMEY: But armed with data from both a success and a disappointment, the Fish and Wildlife Service is now searching for a new reintroduction site within the red wolves' historic range. The Service says once the animals' numbers reach 220 strong in the wild, spread out over 3 locations, it will consider its program a success. Regardless of where those sites are, it's a safe bet that the wolves' presence will evoke both affection and fear.


TOOMEY: Perhaps one of the nation's first conservationists, Aldo Leopold, was correct when he wrote, "Only the mountain has lived long enough to listen objectively to the howl of a wolf." For Living on Earth, I'm Diane Toomey.



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