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Howling for Attention: NC Red Wolf Population Struggles for Survival

Red wolf populations have been reduced in recent years because of policy changes, hunting and human threats. (B. Bartel/USFWS)
Red wolf populations have been reduced in recent years because of policy changes, hunting and human threats. (B. Bartel/USFWS)
August 2, 2016

COLUMBIA, N.C. - They're an animal often overlooked when considering the state's prized wildlife, but for decades the endangered red wolf has called North Carolina home. Once close to extinction, federal and state efforts had grown the population to 100 wolves living in the wild. That's until recent years when policy changes reduced the population to just 60 animals.

Ben Prater, the southeast program director with Defenders of Wildlife said while human development and hunting are two factors, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service also is creating its own challenge.

"The biggest challenge we face right now is the agency itself because we need them to really commit to the recovery effort," he said. "They have ended some of the practices that helped get the population upwards and over 100 animals."

In September the agency will make a decision on whether to continue the Red Wolf Recovery Program in eastern North Carolina. Red wolves were the first carnivore to be successfully introduced to the wild and the program had become a model of how endangered predators are introduced across the country.

Kim Wheeler, executive director of the Red Wolf Coalition Inc. has worked with red wolves for several years and said if the animal becomes extinct, there will be a gap in the sights and sounds of the wilderness in the state.

"What resonates with me is the howls," she said. "To be able to have that opportunity and hear that sound and know if it had not been for the work of some dedicated people, that sound would have been gone off the face of the earth."

Earlier this year, Defenders of Wildlife resigned from its role in the Red Wolf Recovery Program because of concerns over the management of the recovery team, and Prater said their organization felt their efforts to save the animal were better spent in other areas.

"Science is on our side," Prater said. "Almost on a monthly basis, new research is coming out demonstrating that there are pragmatic, efficient ways that we can help this species recover."

Historically, red wolves lived from Pennsylvania to Florida, with populations of more than 1.7 million. The animal has been impacted by habitat loss, severe weather, death by motor vehicles and interbreeding between coyote and red wolf populations.

Stephanie Carson/Shaine Smith, Public News Service - NC