How did red wolves go extinct from the wild? When and how did red wolves return?
Intensive predator control programs and the degradation and alteration of the species' habitat had greatly reduced red wolf numbers by the early 20th century. Designated as an endangered species in 1967, the red wolf was declared extinct in the wild in 1980 and the last wolves were gathered from Texas and Louisiana and placed into captivity in order to foster a captive breeding program and eventually recover them in the wild. In 1987, an experimental population of 14 red wolves was reintroduced into eastern North Carolina's Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge. These animals started producing wild-born pups in 1988. By 2002, the entire red wolf population in North Carolina was wild born.
Today, they roam the five county recovery area encompassing Beaufort, Dare, Hyde, Tyrrell, and Washington Counties, which is mostly a mix of agricultural land, mixed forest, and marshland.
What do they eat?
Red wolves feed on small rodents, raccoons, marsh rabbits, deer, and nutria, an invasive species in North Carolina. By naturally preying on some of these species, they help to prevent certain agricultural crops from being destroyed.
What other benefits do they bring to the state of North Carolina?
Red wolves attract visitors to the five-county recovery area, who come to see the red wolf exhibits, take part in the education programs, and learn more about the field programs. Past economic studies have shown that the red wolf attracts millions of dollars to local economies via ecotourism and provides other benefits as well. The red wolf was the first predator to be restored to former habitat after going extinct in the wild and is a powerful educational tool for helping citizens understand the value of wildlife.
"14 percent of the population (up to 14 wolves) died each year in large part due to mistaken identity"
What are the major threats to the species?
Shooting by hunters is the leading cause of death, a fact attributed to the similarity in appearance between coyotes and red wolves. Prior to 2014, 7 to 14 percent of the population (up to 14 wolves) died each year due to gunshot mortality. The species is also at risk of hybridizing with coyotes, which have traditionally been sterilized in the recovery area so as to prevent their hybridizing with the wolves.
In 2013, the Animal Welfare Institute, Defenders of Wildlife, and the Red Wolf Coalition, as represented by the Southern Environmental Law Center, brought a lawsuit against the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission (NCWRC), arguing that, by authorizing the shooting of coyotes within the recovery area, the NCWRC was causing unlawful "take" of the red wolf (i.e., actions that harass, harm, hunt, or kill the animals) in violation of the Endangered Species Act. On May 13, 2014, a federal court issued a preliminary injunction blocking the NCWRC's authorization of coyote hunting—including at night—in the recovery area.
With the hope that red wolves will continue to have a permanent home in North Carolina and obtain additional reintroduction sites in their historical range, the plaintiffs in the suit entered into a settlement agreement with the NCWRC. This agreement outlines significant steps to protect endangered red wolves in North Carolina, including banning coyote hunting at night throughout the five-county Red Wolf Recovery Area and during the day on public lands, except in limited circumstances. It also requires permits to kill coyotes on private lands, mandates reporting of all kills, and prohibits coyote contest hunts throughout the recovery area. Overall, the settlement aims to continue to decrease threats posed by indiscriminate coyote hunting, while also addressing the concerns of local private landowners and state and federal agencies that are in charge of red wolf recovery. Since coyote hunting has been limited in the five counties where the red wolves roam, fewer red wolves have been killed due to gunshot mortality.
Despite this, later that year, the USFWS announced that it would review the status and future of the Red Wolf Recovery Program in North Carolina, potentially terminating it and pulling the red wolves out of the state.
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