By: Paxton Rizzo
The Red Wolf is a individual species of wolf that used to live up and down the east coast and as far west as Texas. Some have even referred to it as the all American wolf given that it is the only wolf whose habitat has only ever been within the confines of the United States. It is a unique animal with its smaller size, long legs and distinct red coloring distinguishing it from other well known canids in North America, such as Gray Wolfs and Coyotes. Its long legs are especially useful for living in the shrub and marsh covered environments that are so prevalent in the south.
The Red Wolf was hunted heavily over the years and in 1966 it was recognized as endangered. In 1980, from the remaining population, located in Texas and Louisiana, 400 wolves were captured, and of those wolves only 14 deemed to be pureblooded wolves and were kept for breeding purposes. After establishing a breeding program, a location was selected where the program would attempt to reintroduce the Red Wolf to the wild. That site was on a coastal peninsula in Eastern North Carolina at Alligator River National Park. The wolves were reintroduced in 1986. It was one of the first times that they attempted to reintroduce a predator that was previously declared extinct in the wild. The program was initially very successful, however, today the Red Wolves in North Carolina face extinction again, but with recent scientific discoveries and helpful court rulings there may still be some hope for the future of the Red Wolf.
When the reintroduction program first started the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) had multiple specific actions that they were meant to carry out in order to promote the Red Wolf reintroduction into the wild. Those guidelines were as follows: distinguishing between problem and non-problem wolves, introduce more wolves into the wild, pup fostering, and actively attempting to manage the threat from coyotes on the viability of the Red Wolf population. The agency carried out those duties faithfully for over a decade and by following those procedures the Red Wolf reached its peak wild population in 2007. Unfortunately, shortly after their peak in 2007, the wild Red Wolf population began to decline. This coincided with the Agency’s discretional termination of the actions mandated in the reintroduction protocol.. For these reasons and the threat to restrict the wolves to federally owned land that would not be able to support a viable population, several organizations that had an interest in the Red Wolf’s recovery brought a case against the USFWS. Upon review a United States District Court’s Judge Boyle found in favor of the organizations championing the Red Wolf. Judge Boyles’s decision said that the USFWS had failed to comply with its own guidelines and thus their actions were arbitrary and capricious. The judge’s decision has made permanent the 2016 injunction that stopped the taking of wolves without proof that they were a danger to humans, livestock, or pets. This measure will protect the wolves in the wild and will encourage the USFWS to pick up their Red Wolf conservation efforts. It also has the added benefit of setting a precedent that the endangered species act protects animals even if a loud minority opposes them.
Another positive development in Red Wolf conservation comes from a discovery out of Galveston Texas, where a large pack of coyote Red Wolf hybrids. The coywolves were discovered by a photographer/field biologist, who noticed the wolves in 2013. He thought that there was something strange about the canines and their behavior and appearance. Instead of the dusty brown that coyotes in the area usually were, these canines were red and taller than the coyotes in the area. Thinking that the canines might be Red Wolves the photographer reported them to conservation researchers, who requested a sample of DNA. The DNA findings showed that one of the wolves samples was seventy percent Red Wolf and the other forty percent Red Wolf. Researchers believe that there may even be a coywolf descendent with 100% Red Wolf DNA. Within the coywolves DNA researchers found “ghost alleles” that are lost in the captive population and the reintroduced wild populations.
The discovery of Red Wolf DNA persisting in the Coyote populations from where the wolves were last seen in the wild originally is exciting and encouraging. It lets us know that the wolves found a way to keep their DNA from extinction. Natures natural preservation methods also kept genes alive that were lost in the captive breeding program. Gene diversity is important to a healthy population so this could prove helpful in the further conservation of the species in the future.
Drew Kann, The government rolled back protections for red wolves, but a judge may have saved them from extinction, CNN (Nov. 6, 2018),https://www.cnn.com/2018/11/06/us/red-wolf-judge-rules-government-violated-federal-law-trnd/index.html
Oliver Milman, Red wolf: The struggle to save one of the rarest animals on the earth, The Guardian(Mar 7, 2019) https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/mar/07/red-wolf-endangered-species.
Milman, supra note 2.
Nestbox Collective, Youtube(May 20, 2016), https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eLuYWZlGStA.
Red Wolf Coalition v. United States Fish & Wildlife Serv., 346 F. Supp. 3d 802, 805.
Kann, Supra note 1.
Red Wolf Coalition, at 813.
Id. at 807.
Id. at 814.
Abbie Bennett, Federal government violated Endangered Species Act by ending red wolf protections, judge rules, The News & Observer(Nov. 05, 2018), https://www.newsobserver.com/news/local/article221163830.html
Red Wolf Coalition, at 808.
Id. at 815.
Id. at 811, 814-815.
Kann, supra note 1.
Milman, supra note 2.
Nick Powell, Galvaston photographer’s discovery led to a breakthrough red wolf study,Houston Chronicle, (Jan. 18, 2019) https://www.houstonchronicle.com/news/houston-texas/houston/article/Galveston-photographer-s-discovery-led-to-13545686.php.
David Frey, Hybrids – and maybe a full red wolf – found in former range, The Wildlife Society, (Dec. 18, 2018) https://wildlife.org/hybrids-and-maybe-a-full-red-wolf-found-in-former-range/.
Liz Fuller-Wright, Red wolf DNA found in mysterious Texas canines, Princeton University, (Dec 18, 2018) https://www.princeton.edu/news/2018/12/18/red-wolf-dna-found-mysterious-texas-canines.
Image Source: https://www.untamedscience.com/biodiversity/red-wolf/