The North Carolina State Wolfpack isn’t the only group of red wolves we should be worried about. According to a letter by Governor Roy Cooper from November of 2019, there are only 14 wild red wolves left in the world, all of which live within a five-county area in North Carolina. But why worry about this one Carolina carnivore? Turns out their presence is essential to the health of the surrounding ecosystem, including the crops we eat and the water we drink. Even though they only reside in North Carolina right now, they used to inhabit most of the east coast, meaning that their presence is essential elsewhere, too.
The best way to help save red wolves is to contact the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and voice your support for policy change. Right now, the sterilization of coyotes, expansion of the five-county wolf recovery area, and banning of wolf and coyote hunting will give these wolves the best chance for survival. All of these actions can only happen through changes in policy.
A History of the North Carolina Red Wolf
These wolves have a complicated history. At one time inhabiting most of the Eastern U.S. and even parts of Canada, they are now almost extinct due to habitat loss and hunting. When their populations first started to decline and they were listed under the Endangered Species Act in the 1970s, a recovery program was initiated that involved the capture of around 400 wolves. It turns out that most of these animals, however, were coyote hybrids, and only 14 pure red wolves were found. Those 14 were used in a captive breeding program that led to the reintroduction of a healthy red wolf population in North Carolina ― one that reached around 100 wolves by 2012.
That’s where the success story stops, though. In 2015, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) reduced conservation measures for red wolves and decided to allow the killing of red wolves that wandered onto private property, regardless of whether they were posing any threat. That same year, the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission passed a resolution requesting that “the USFWS declare the red wolf…extinct in the wild and terminate the red wolf reintroduction program…”. Then, in 2018, the USFWS proposed the reduction of the red wolf range from its five-county area to a territory a fraction of that size. The 2015 action was already bad for conservationists (and the wolves), so this 2018 proposal sparked legal action. In November of 2018, the Southern Environmental Law Center secured a court order stating that the USFWS had violated the Endangered Species Act and failed in their protection of red wolves. The USFWS backed off on their proposal and pledged to create a new recovery program, and the ruling was a win for environmental and conservation groups.
But, yet again, the celebrating stops there. The USFWS has yet to come up with any plan for protecting red wolves, and the wolf population continues to decline. This lack of action has even sparked another lawsuit against the agency. In November of 2019, the Center for Biological Diversity sued the Trump Administration for “failing to prepare an updated recovery plan for the red wolf,”. If federal inaction continues, the wild red wolf population could easily see its demise. Something as quick and unpredictable as a natural disaster could wipe out a substantial portion of the population, and nothing could be done about it. The only way to ensure their survival is to increase their population now, while it’s still possible.
Why Conserve Red Wolves?
About 14% of yearly red wolves deaths prior to 2014 were due to gunshot mortality. People who killed these wolves did so to keep their pets, livestock, and children safe, or to eliminate the competition for deer hunting. They are seen as predators and pests. In reality, they serve an important role in the environment. For one, they eat invasive rodents called nutria, which cause substantial damage to waterways and destroy crops. The red wolf presence in an ecosystem also causes a top-down effect that influences the health of all other plants and animals in the environment. For example, their presence affects the population, behavior, and movement of deer, which in turn affects the vegetation and the landscape.
Yellowstone serves as a good case study for the importance of wolves. From the 1920s to the 1990s, a lack of wolves in the park caused habitat destruction and water quality degeneration by overpopulated elk, which then caused the decline of many animal populations. Since the reintroduction of wolves in 1995, however, vegetation has recovered, eroded waterways have been restored, and predator and prey populations have returned to a healthy balance. From an economic standpoint, red wolves also boost ecotourism, which contributes to the local economy.
You have the power to do something about the dwindling red wolf population. If you live in red wolf country, you can read here about best coexistence practices. If you have access to a phone, you can call the USFWS to voice your support for red wolf conservation, citing the following policy changes:
- The conservation measures that were in place before 2015 should be restored by the USFWS. These measures included the sterilization of coyotes to prevent interbreeding with wolves, and the release of captive-bred wolf pups. If it worked in the ‘90s and early 2000s, it stands to reason that it would work again.
- The red wolf recovery area, which now spans five counties, should be expanded. Other than human impact, habitat loss due to rising sea levels has been one of the largest drivers of extinction for red wolves. Increasing their habitat range and acclimating captive-bred pups to a larger area could spark a continued expansion of the population’s home range and allow future generations of wild-born pups to continue to spread throughout the Eastern US.
- The killing of wolves and coyotes should be prohibited throughout the (new) recovery area. Many landowners who have shot and killed a wolf claim that they thought it was a coyote. If neither were allowed to be hunted, this mix up wouldn’t be possible. Additionally, the sterilization of coyotes to control coyote overpopulation and interbreeding is undone when these coyotes are shot. In order for conservation efforts to be effective, neither coyotes nor wolves can be hunted.
- The USFWS should launch a public education campaign to advise landowners on the best practices for keeping wolves and coyotes off of their land. The USFWS itself stated in a status report that “without private landowner support, we will not be able to recover the red wolf,”. By removing the threat of wolves as a pest or predator to private landowners, this educational campaign would make them more willing to assist and cooperate with conservationists. And with the wild wolf count changing as I type this, they need all the assistance they can get.
 Associated Press, “N.C. Gov. Cooper seeks help for critically endangered red wolf – just a dozen or so in the wild,” NBC News, December 26, 2019, https://www.nbcnews.com/politics/politics-news/n-carolina-gov-seeks-help-critically-endangered-red-wolf-just-n1107446.
 “History of Red Wolves,” Wolf Haven International, n.d., https://wolfhaven.org/conservation/species-survival-plans/history-of-red-wolves/.
 “Resolution Requesting that the United States Fish and Wildlife Service Declare the Red Wolf (Canis rufus) Extinct in the Wild and Terminate the Red Wolf Reintroduction Program in Beaufort, Dare, Hyde, Tyrrell, and Washington Counties, North Carolina,” North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission, January 29th, 2015, https://www.ncwildlife.org/Portals/0/About/documents/2015-01-29-NCWRC-Resolution-Asking-USFWS-Declare-Red-Wolf-Extinct-in-Wild-Terminate-Program.pdf
 “World’s Only Wild Red Wolves in Jeopardy,” Southern Environmental Law Center, n.d., https://www.southernenvironment.org/cases-and-projects/nc-coyote-rule-risks-endangered-red-wolves.
 “Lawsuit Filed Over Trump Administration Failure to Update Plan to Save Red Wolves,” Center for Biological Diversity, November 19, 2019, https://biologicaldiversity.org/w/news/press-releases/lawsuit-filed-over-trump-administration-failure-update-plan-save-red-wolves-2019-11-19/.
 Darryl Fears, “The effort to save red wolves in the wild is failing, a five-year review says,” The Washington Post, April 25, 2018, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/animalia/wp/2018/04/25/the-effort-to-save-red-wolves-in-the-wild-is-failing-a-five-year-review-says/.
 “History of Red Wolves,” Wolf Haven International.
 “Wolves and Our Ecosystems,” Living with Wolves, 2020, https://www.livingwithwolves.org/about-wolves/why-wolves-matter/.
 “World’s Only Wild Red Wolves in Jeopardy,” Southern Environmental Law Center.
 Doyle, “Bill, appropriators howl over N.C. red wolf protections.”