By Hannah Davis
There once was a time when the nightly routine of owl hoots and cricket chirps were mixed in with the presence of the raspy howl of a pack of red wolves, but now the howls have almost gone silent. In fact, the forests off of the east coast of North Carolina are the only habitat where you can still hear a wild red wolf’s call.
The Center for the Environment at Catawba College kicked off the new school year with its first event on Thursday, September 1. The event showcased three advocates for the red wolf and a documentary reiterating the struggle that red wolves face in today’s world. The three advocates were Christian Hunt, an associate for the Defenders of Wildlife nonprofit group; Ben Prater, also a member of Defenders of Wildlife and an alumnus of the Catawba College Environmental Science Program; and Ben Zino, a junior at West Rowan High School who created a red wolf recovery petition that received over 100,000 signatures.
But what really is a red wolf anyway? And why does it need protecting? Well, Christian Hunt answered that by saying “when you think of an endangered species, you probably think about pandas, polar bears or tigers, and while those animals all do need protection, they would be considered an affluent population in comparison to the red wolf,” another endangered species. For instance, there are over 4,000 wild tigers currently in existence, but only around 60 wild red wolves.
This is mostly due to the fact that people’s perception of a wolf is usually pretty bad. Hunt explains this by telling the audience to think about the childhood stories of “The Three Little Pigs” or “Red Riding Hood” where the wolf is portrayed as being the mean, scary bad guy. When in reality, red wolves are actually one of the most shy and gentle species of Canid out there.
Hunt believes that one of the biggest problems for red wolves is that they are often mistaken for their less-agreeable cousin – the coyote. However, unlike coyotes, red wolves tend to only go after sick and injured deer or small creatures like opossums when desperate. Coyotes, on the other hand, tend to eat whatever suits their fancy and are well adaptable to an omnivorous diet if needed.
“It is important to note that despite the small number of red wolves, they play a vital role in the ecosystem that they inhabit,” says Hunt. This is where something called the Trophic Cascade begins to take place. The Trophic Cascade happens to an ecosystem when the loss of one species makes a dramatic effect on another species in the ecosystem, and where everything is basically thrown off balance because of the one loss.
For instance, when the red wolf packs are strong, they keep the populations of coyotes and white-tailed deer down. This helps farmers keep their livestock away from the coyotes and their gardens free from being eaten by the deer. Also, in keeping the deer population down, the forests where the deer roam become healthier and more abundant. This is because the deer would be eating less of the plant life out of fear of being caught.
High School student Ben Zino wrapped up the night by telling the audience that “the best thing you can do is get the word out.” A lot of people simply don’t know about this creature or its plight and the red wolf “is currently unique to our forests and should be something that we are proud of.”
Red Wolf, Found Only in North Carolina, in Danger of Extinction
Efforts to recover the red wolf, the world’s most endangered canid, was the topic for a presentation September 1 at the Center for the Environment facility on the Catawba College campus.
Christian Hunt, program associate for Defenders of Wildlife’s Southeast region, talked about the endangered species, now found only in North Carolina, and what citizens can do to save this animal from extinction. Hunt offered these written responses to questions posed by the Center.
Q: Tell us first of all what the range of habitat is for the red wolf.
A: Red wolves used to roam from the plains of Texas, to the swamps of Florida, to the forests of New England. They now live in one small holdout in eastern North Carolina, on both public and private lands.
Q: How many are left?
A: No more than 60 red wolves remain in the wild. Roughly 200 persist in captivity.
Q: Why is the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service considering taking the wild red wolf out of its natural habitat?
A: It’s a politically complex issue, but the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission —on behalf of a few private landowners opposed to the program—has demanded that the red wolves be removed from the state. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is considering whether to terminate the red wolf recovery efforts in North Carolina.
Q: Are the private landowners opposed to it because the red wolf is a predator?
A: Generally speaking, no. Unfortunately, predators and especially wolves are very misunderstood and underappreciated. Red wolves are timid, elusive creatures. They do not pose a threat to livestock or people.
Q: What do red wolves typically prey on?
A: Primarily small mammals. Raccoons, opossum, rabbits and the occasional deer. They also help control invasive nutria—large rodents—which destroy farmers' crops.
Q: When was the red wolf declared endangered?
A: In 1967. In the mid to late ’70s the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service removed the last wild wolves in an attempt to save them from extinction and with only 14 animals began a captive breeding program. Eight pairs of red wolves were then released into eastern North Carolina in 1987 on the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge. The wild population grew up to nearly 150 animals at one point.
Q: Has habitat loss impacted the red wolf?
A: Yes. Historically the loss of habitat and persecution drove the wolf to the brink of extinction. Today, gunshot mortality, political inaction and agency mismanagement are the red wolves' greatest threats.
Q: Where is the 1.7 million acres where the red wolves live today?
A: Red wolves live on both public and private lands, in a five-county area, including Dare, Hyde, Tyrrell, Washington and Beaufort counties.
Q: Tell us what your program with Defenders of Wildlife wants to do.
A: Defenders is taking a two-pronged approach in North Carolina. We are focused on advancing the science and policy of red wolf recovery while cultivating grassroots support. If the red wolves are to remain in this state, Fish and Wildlife needs to hear the support of North Carolinians.
Q: What will happen if U.S. Fish and Wildlife decides to do away with the program?
A: If the Service terminates the red wolf recovery effort in North Carolina, it is unclear what actions they would take. It is possible that all red wolves will be removed from the wild—a major blow to their recovery and long-term viability as a species.
Q: What will happen to the ecosystems if the red wolves become extinct?
A: Wolves protect the health of the ecosystems. Red wolves prey upon nest predators, such as raccoons and opossum, which allows the turkey, quail and songbird populations to grow. Red wolves also eat invasive species, which otherwise damage farmers' crops.
Q: What is your overall goal?
A: Our aim is to promote awareness, cultivate grassroots support, influence sound science and policy, defend vital red wolf habitat, and ultimately protect the red wolf from extinction.
The Center for the Environment was founded in 1996 to educate the college community and the public about environmental stewardship and sustainability, provide value-added education for students through interaction with thought leaders and opportunities for experiential learning, and bring diverse people and groups together to catalyze sustainable solutions to our most persistent environmental challenges. For more information, visit www.CenterForTheEnvironment.org.