By Lisa Sorg
They’ve waited their whole lives for this moment.
Four adult red wolves were released into a wildlife refuge in eastern North Carolina, and four red wolf pups were fostered to a female in hopes of rebuilding the world’s only wild population of the endangered species. Before the release, there were seven red wolves living in the wild, down from 130 in 2005-06.
The adult wolves came from the Endangered Wolf Center near St. Louis, the Wolf Conservation Center in New York State, and Wolf Haven International in Washington State; the pups originated from the Akron Zoo.
In early May, the wolves were flown by Aero Charter, Lighthawk, and Pilots To The Rescue, which donated their services, and at a significantly reduced rate by Alaska Airlines, to North Carolina. The wolves were then released into the 1.7 million-acre Red Wolf Recovery Area, in Dare and Hyde counties.
According to the Wolf Conservation Center, the wolves were introduced into the wild through a “soft release” process. A habitat surrounded by temporary fencing was installed and animals were placed inside for a length of time providing them an acclimation period to their new environment and time to bond with their mates. When the time is right, the fencing will be opened, allowing the red wolves to confidently enter their new home.
The zoos and conservation centers that house these red wolves manage them in a way that allows them to retain natural instincts that will help them survive in the wild. For example, the wolves aren’t habituated with humans; they are housed in groups and are fed native prey (such as deer) to teach them what to hunt.
Fostering is a creative conservation strategy that takes wolf pups born in a managed care litter and places them within a wild litter. A wild wolf mother will adopt the new additions as her own. The goal of fostering is to increase genetic diversity, according to the Wolf Conservation Center.
The releases are the culmination of years’ of court battles between conservationists and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
In January, U.S. District Court Judge Terrence Boyle required the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to prepare a plan to release captive red wolves into the wild by March 1. The Southern Environmental Law Center, on behalf of Defenders of Wildlife, Animal Welfare Institute and the Red Wolf Coalition, had sued USFWS over its failure to release captive wolves into the wild, a violation of the Endangered Species Act.
“Getting more red wolves in the wild in North Carolina is what we’ve been fighting for, and this is finally a step in the right direction,” said Sierra Weaver, senior attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center, in a prepared statement. “The ultimate question is going to be whether this marks a return to the service’s historic conservation commitment, or whether it is going to take more court orders to keep this up.”
Until the 2015, USFWS successfully managed the wild red wolf population, which had officially gone extinct in 1980. The agency released the first breeding pairs of red wolves into the wilds of northeastern North Carolina in 1987. By 1992, the agency had declared the experiment a success. In 2000, there were as many as 200 red wolves living in and around the official recovery area eastern North Carolina, primarily Dare and Hyde counties — the animals’ historic range.
Yet as the agency began dismantling the recovery program in 2015, the number of red wolves began to drop precipitously. A few powerful landowners in the area had complained to state and federal officials that wolves were straying from their official boundaries onto their property. That same year USFWS announced that it would stop releasing red wolves from captivity into the wild while it reviewed the continued viability of the Red Wolf Recovery Program.
The agency also began allowing private landowners to kill non-problem wolves — also known as a lethal take — and ceased sterilizing coyotes. This is important because coyotes can breed with red wolves, diluting the genetic line, jeopardizing the purity, and thus, the protection of the species.
At the time Judge Boyle ruled that USFWS could not legally authorize lethal takes and had to resume the sterilization program.
In the winter of 2019-20, USFWS did release one red wolf into the Red Wolf Recovery Area, which it transferred from the wild population of six red wolves located in St. Vincent National Wildlife Refuge in Florida, according to the Southern Environmental Law Center.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Association of Zoos and Aquarium American Red Wolf Species Survival Plan also coordinated with conservation groups on the most recent release.
“The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is committed to the recovery of the red wolf,” an agency spokesperson said in November. “We are engaged in recovery efforts and continuing to do so, including updating the Red Wolf Recovery Plan and increasing the captive population to ensure the genetic health of the species and support future reintroductions.”
“The Red Wolf Coalition is grateful to the Species Survival Plan participants that made these releases possible,” said Kim Wheeler, executive director of the Red Wolf Coalition, based in Eastern North Carolina. “Our hope is that these newly released red wolves will flourish in the wild, and that the USFWS Red Wolf Recovery Program will continue to take actions that offer a path forward toward recovery in North Carolina.”