The critically endangered red wolf species holds no more than 7 wild individuals, with zoos and refuges keeping these once plentiful predators from total extinction.
The first week of March 2021 holds hope for the red wolf as the North Carolina government and wildlife officials work in tandem to release more into the wilds of their state. The critical status of the species, however, means that there are precious few available for rerelease. In total, just two red wolves were set free Monday, March 3.
The release marks important progress in the rehabilitation of a remarkable predator. The red wolf, once as widespread in the U.S. as their grey cousins, now dwindles on the brink of total extinction. No more than 7 individuals exist in the North American wilds. Around 250 exist in zoo, refuge, and sanctuary breeding programs, but reintroduction into their natural habitat has proven difficult.
Such is the case for North Carolina in full. State citizens are unsure if they want the large, efficient predators reinstated into their daily lives. Their government has responded in kind, with the releases of captive-bred wolves being largely halted in recent years.
Red wolves were nearly driven to extinction in the mid-1900s via aggressive predator-control programs across the eastern United States. This, coupled with industrialization and habitat destruction, wiped out 99% of the species. It’s their well-documented and extensive hybridization with coyotes, however, that poses the most curious questions of all – and keeps most state governments from recognizing the red wolf as critically endangered.
NC Government Will Make or Break Red Wolf Survival
In the case of North Carolina, their newest plan to reintroduce the species falls to U.S. District Judge Terrence Boyle in January. From it, Boyle ordered the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to introduce more red wolves into the eastern part of the state.
Why North Carolina? The state is absolutely critical to the survival of the species. It is the only place in the world where the red wolf still roams the wilds. Amidst near-insurmountable odds, the canines have managed to cling to existence here.
According to local news station WITN, “The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said in the filing Monday that it brought two male wolves from a Florida wildlife refuge, paired them with wild female wolves from North Carolina and let them loose in February.”
Tragically, one of the male wolves was hit by a car. It’s accidents like this that only add fuel to the fire for wildlife officials looking to reintroduce the species in far greater numbers.
To this end, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service “plans to release another captive-bred pair into the wild this summer and will aim to introduce captive-bred pups into any wild litters born in the breeding season that runs through May,” WITN cites.
Wolf conservation groups feel these continually-small steps will not be enough, however. Local wildlife advocates are pushing for the NC government to move with urgency. Whether this is possible remains to be seen. Judge Boyle is giving conservationists two weeks to sight any objections to the state’s new plan. This includes several groups also suing the federal government over the treatment of red wolves.