By Bo Petersen
The biggest threat to red wolves continuing in the wild isn't a lack of money or land. It isn't landowner opposition. It's the coyote.
But oddly enough, the nuisance coyote just might be the reason the embattled U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reintroduction program goes ahead, if it does.
That's the head-shaker takeaway from a recently released review of the wolves' recovery program. The review's conclusions are expected to be deciding factors in whether the service keeps pursuing the 30-year-old program. The decision is expected after the first of the year.
The red wolf is a native animal and could be a stabilizing alpha species in an ecosystem getting overrun by invasive coyotes. The coyote has become a suburban menace.
The report doesn't give much room for hope - calling for expansion of the reintroduction effort and more funding if it is to continue. But environmental groups supporting the wolf's return are pushing that the wolf belongs in the countryside, to try to turn the decision. "In the end, the red wolf is all we have left of the wolf in the Southeast. We can restore this cool, native wolf, or you're going to have coyotes," said conservation scientist Ron Sutherland, of Wildlands Network.
The red wolf once was the Lowcountry's own, an animal as big as German shepherd, that moves with a slinking feral grace. Hunted as a varmint, the wolf was pronounced extinct in the wild in 1980, when only 14 captives wolves were known to be alive.
The recovery program was launched in 1987, largely as a wild breeding program at Bull's Island in the Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge north of Charleston. Now, the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge in eastern North Carolina is the only place in the world where the wolves still run free.
The coyote problem is one of the chief concerns raised in the review of the program by Wildlife Management Institute, a private Kentucky based group. The concern is two-fold.
First, wolves occasionally interbreed with the coyote, producing an animal that's been called the coywolf. The hybrid is a larger coyote with more of the wolf's jaw - capable of bringing down larger prey - and with potentially a lot less of the wolf's wariness about living near inhabited areas like suburbs. Already suburban communities around Charleston such as Sullivan's Island are roiling with complaints about coyotes roaming. Researchers at the Alligator River refuge have launched efforts to keep re-introduced red wolves from interbreeding with coyotes there.
Secondly, there's controversy among researchers just how genetically distinct the red wolf is from the coyote. The species share large portions of DNA that varies from animal to animal. Some researchers aren't convinced the red wolves remaining really ought to be considered a distinct species.
Wolves under attack
The review is a periodic re-evaluation required under the federal Endangered Species Act.
On one hand, prospects for the wolves' return appeared to be improving. The Alligator River refuge now has more than 100 wolves in the wild and about 200 captive. Fish and Wildlife biologists are looking at placing breeding pairs of wolves along remote East Coast islands as an alternative to the semi-captive program now used.
Bull's Island, where that approach started the recovery, is one of the places under consideration. On the other hand, the program has been handcuffed by small budgets and staff - a shortage of both curtailed the Bull's Island effort in 2005. Meanwhile, roving wolves are suffering a dire setback in the country outside the Alligator River refuge: They are being shot.
The native red wolf is so similar to the invasive coyote that at least some of the wolves are getting shot by mistake. A law passed recently that made it illegal to hunt coyote in an area around the refuge. And now, after years of relative acceptance, the wolves' presence is being opposed by a group of landowners there, angry that they now longer can rid properties of the varmint coyote.
The review said the wolf's distinct genetics need to be firmly established, and markers set for just how much DNA an animal must have to be considered a red wolf. Then, reintroduced wolves ought to be monitored for that marker - to see how much they remain wolves.
For a program already decisively squeezed by budgets and stirring new controversies, the needs for more wild sites, genetics and ongoing genetic monitoring is more than enough for managers to pull the plug, and restrict the wolf to captive sites.
Calls and emails to a Fish and Wildlife spokesman asking for comment were not returned. David Rabon, the longtime recovery program coordinator, has been re-assigned and is leaving the service.
'Hold their own'
The pesky coyote, though, is prospering, and the wolves could be a prime weapon to keep it under control. Despite occasional, apparently "loner" interbreeding, wolf packs tend to run out coyotes and other deer predators. At the Alligator River refuge, deer herds have improved.
"There might have been a time when people said let's not bring back the red wolf, but that paradigm has changed," said Jeff Dennis, a local hunter who publishes the Lowcountry Outdoors blog. "Now we have coyotes everywhere. Native critters have their place in the ecosystem. They will reclaim that place. I would think that red wolves could hold their own (against coyotes). It might take a long time and a lot of acreage."
Spots like Francis Marion National Forest and adjacent Cape Romain could be big enough, he said.
That's what wolf supporters are banking on. Wildlands Network already is talking with private donors to take on some of the cost of continuing the program, including educating landowners about the advantages, Sutherland said. But he concedes what he sees from Fish and Wildlife suggests they are pulling back from it.
"Yeah, it's going to be tough," he said. But "$5.4 million per year to manage three (wild) populations, I don't think it's too much to spend on an extremely rare species that's down to its last 100 animals in the wild."