Somewhere in the eastern North Carolina wilderness, concealed by a canopy of oaks and pines, a pack of collared predators roams.
The animals have no idea that, in as soon as a few days, they could receive what amounts to a death sentence from the very organization that fitted them, when they were newly born pups in their mothers’ dens, with the devices they wear around their necks—that they could very well be the last red wolves to ever inhabit the planet. Unlike the humans fighting for their survival, the wolves aren’t burdened with that reality.
So when, in the coming days or weeks, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service rules on the future of the Red Wolf Recovery Program—a nearly thirty-year-old effort to prevent the extinction of one of the world’s most endangered species, of which there are only about forty left, all in North Carolina—the animals the decision will affect will, quite simply, either live or die. But for those who have dedicated decades to the wolves’ preservation and repopulation, a ruling against the red wolf would set a “dangerous precedent”—one that, in their view, appeases a “vocal handful” of “wealthy, influential” landowners in the eastern part of the state.
“Right now, there is a lot of talk about the red wolf, but I’m sure there are other animals within the endangered species program that are sitting back, watching and worrying,” says Kim Wheeler, executive director of the Red Wolf Coalition, an advocacy group. “They are thinking, ‘This could happen to me.’”
The red wolf was officially listed as an endangered species in 1967, but protections for the species weren’t granted until the Endangered Species Act became federal law six years later. It would take nearly another decade for biologists to trace the last red wolves to natural safe havens—a virtually human-free habitat along the Gulf Coast in western Louisiana and eastern Texas. But there were only seventeen of them left.
Biologists believed there was only one way to save the species: captive breeding and an “experimental release” in a somewhat controlled environment. So when the first litter of pups was born at Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium in Tacoma, Washington, in 1977, they were fitted with tracking collars and released in Bull Island, South Carolina. A year later, the thriving wolves were recaptured and placed back in captivity; the program was deemed a success. But finding a permanent home would take time.
Then, in 1984, it happened. Prudential Insurance Company donated a mass of land that would become the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge in eastern North Carolina—and, after scientists judged this prey-rich land conducive to repopulation, the new home of the only known red wolves in the world.
Fast-forward more than three decades, and these creatures are still at risk. Wheeler says the reasons aren’t much different from those that brought the species to the brink of extinction more than a half-century ago.
“The red wolf did not go away naturally,” she says. “It went away because of hunting and development.”
Illegal shootings and the destruction of the wolves’ habitat have played a role, but there’s another problem: the wolves have a tendency to breed with coyotes. Because the resulting pups do not fall under the protection of the Endangered Species Act, they can be killed legally. The problem then becomes prosecuting those who shoot a red wolf because they couldn’t tell the difference. Add to that the fact that, if a red wolf is breeding with a coyote, it is not breeding with another red wolf.
“Folks can’t be complacent, and there is quite a coalition working all over the country to save these red wolves,” she says. “They were almost extinct and brought back from the brink. The fact that we’re willing to abandon that success story is just shocking.”