Archived Outdoors

The Naturalist's Corner: Continuing red wolf saga

Red wolf. USFWS photo Red wolf. USFWS photo

U.S. Fish and Wildlife (F&W) held a public meeting regarding proposed rule changes to its Red Wolf Recovery Plan. According to Defenders of Wildlife’s Ben Prater, this public meeting echoed most of the other polls and/or comment periods regarding the recovery plan.

“Of the 22 people who spoke only two were opposed to the red wolf program,” Prater noted.

My last Naturalist’s Corner on July 3 also highlighted this public support: “… results of the last public comment period from 2016 showed that 99 percent of responders 54,992 out of 55,087 supported the recovery of wild red wolves even 68.4 percent of comments from the current five-county region of the state where wild wolves are found supported the recovery.”

It is hard to ferret out how a program with such overwhelming public support appears to be drawing its last breaths. North Carolina’s own Wildlife Resources Commission is one of the harshest critics of the program, asking Congress to end the recovery program and declare the red wolf extinct. NCWRC said F&W had failed to meet population goals and the red wolf was negatively impacting other native species.

Hunters in the region also claimed red wolves were killing too many deer. However, a 2015 article in The Raleigh News & Observer stated, “The reality is that even with the coyotes and wolves, the total deer harvest by hunters in Tyrrell County (where one strident wolf opponent has a hobby farm) has risen by 375 percent since the start of the red wolf recovery program in 1987.”

The next obstacle that has gained prominence is the worry of hybridization with coyotes — and yes red wolves and coyotes do hybridize, and if it happened on a massive scale, it would likely mean the end of genetically pure red wolves. But there are a couple of caveats to this scenario. F&W had a protocol in place to sterilize coyotes in the region, thus creating what they dubbed “placeholders.” These placeholders would guard their territory from other coyotes while not being able to deplete the red wolf gene pool. 

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And, as most biologists know, a healthy, robust red wolf population has very little danger of being either displaced or overly mixed with coyotes. The two don’t get along and the red wolf is the “big” dog. A 2015 study in “Biological Conservation” found the placeholder protocol to be effective. According to the study, “From 1999 to 2013, red wolves displaced or killed 51 out of 182 sterile “placeholder” coyotes …” It went on to note, “Placeholders provided territories for wolves to colonize, yet reduced the production of hybrid litters, thereby limiting genetic introgression to less than 4 percen t coyote ancestry in the wolf population.”

Another concern being raised cannot be answered by paws on the ground. A 2016 study by Bridgett M. vonHoldt et al declared that the red wolf was actually a hybrid whose DNA was about 25 percent wolf and 75 percent coyote. Opponents of red wolf recovery quickly jumped on the bandwagon, declaring the red wolf couldn’t be protected by the endangered species act because it is, in fact a hybrid. 

But other researchers disagree. Lisette Waits, distinguished professor of natural resources at University of Idaho, believes, “It is important for them to understand that the conclusions stated in the vonHoldt et al paper are not universally supported by the scientific community, and there are alternative interpretations and remaining questions about the evolutionary history of canids in North America.”

While the fate of the red wolf may ultimately be decided by its genetic composition, don’t expect a quick resolution. Scientific consensus on such a challenging and complicated issue is likely years, if not decades, down the road.

In the meantime F&W, after a 2012 review of the science regarding the red wolf’s genetic makeup decided the wolf was a distinct species, so until that opinion changes, F&W is charged with protecting the red wolf.

The comment period is still open through July 24. To comment electronically go to and search for FWS-R4-ES-2017-0006, which is the docket number for this action. You may submit a comment by clicking on “Comment Now!”

You may comment by hard copy by mail to Public Comments Processing, Attn: FWS-R4-ES-2017-0006; Division of Policy, Performance, and Management Programs; U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Headquarters, MS: BPHC, 5275 Leesburg Pike, Falls Church, VA 22041–3803.

(Don Hendershot is a naturalist and a writer who lives in Haywood County. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.)

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