Expert says five-county effort to introduce red wolves has gone awry
By Fred Bonner | Special to the County Compass
Editor’s note: Fred Bonner is a respected wildlife biologist, avid hunter, and outdoors columnist, who has first-hand knowledge of the state’s Red Wolf Program, which began in 1987.
ARAPAHOE — I’d like to state, upfront, that I’m not opposed to all wolves. They have a definite place in the environment and, in many cases, are vital to the predator/prey relationship in some ecosystems. I testified on the behalf of the gray wolf in Congressional Oversight Hearings when the reintroduction of these wolves into the Yellowstone National Park was news some years ago. Basically many of us felt that since hunting was not allowed in the national parks then, yes, a top predator was absolutely necessary to keep the obviously overpopulated elk herd inside the park under control.
I was, at one time, very much in favor of the introduction of the red wolves here in North Carolina. I was one of the few who met U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Public Information Specialist Don Pfitzer at the Raleigh-Durham International Airport as he brought in a planeload of eight red wolves in 1987.
Some of my articles in The News & Observer (as well as The Washington Daily News) reported very glowing things about these animals. I thought these animals were about “the best thing since sliced bread.”
It’s important to know just how the USFWS went about choosing a few of what they thought that red wolves should look like to begin a captive breeding program.
Jumping back in time to the late 1970s, biologists with the USFWS and several state wildlife agencies estimated that only about 100 animals thought to be red wolves existed in the wild. These animals had been breeding with coyotes and it was difficult to determine just how contaminated these animal’s genes had become with coyote genes. DNA testing was in its infancy and no records are known to exist about the degree of contamination that had already occurred.
The scientists gathered a number of these animals in pens and put their heads together to decide which ones looked the most like what they thought a red wolf should look like. The end result of this screening of ‘look-alikes’ was that 17 of these proclaimed red wolves were sent to a zoo in Seattle to begin a captive breeding program. It was from these Seattle zoo’s red wolves that the eight red wolves were sent to Raleigh and then to the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge to try and establish a breeding population in the wild in our state.
Several incidents happened that began to change my personal views on the red wolves. Probably the one single incident that really opened my eyes on the red wolf issue was when, about a year after the red wolves were brought into our state, I received word that one of the red wolves had been killed after it had been caught in a trappers leg hold trap.
I immediately called USFWS Wildlife Biologist Mike Phillips (who was in charge of the program at that time) to get some idea of just who had done this evil thing to one of our new red wolves. I was stunned when Mike Phillips replied that he himself was the one who had trapped this particular wolf. Phillips was also the one who authorized that this animal be euthanized after the wolf developed an infection in its leg, which resulted in the leg’s being amputated.
When I asked Mike Phillips why this “highly endangered red wolf” (it was, incidentally, a mature female) couldn’t have been saved because even if it had only three legs couldn’t it have served well as mother to bear more red wolf pups? Phillips replied that, “It might have, but I felt that we really didn’t need any more red wolves so I made the decision to do away with this sick animal.”
Mike Phillips has since been lured away from his job with the USFWS to become a personal wildlife manager for the very wealthy Ted Turner at his western ranch.
When we North Carolinians were informed as to the rules that the USFWS was to set up with regard to the red wolves they plainly told us citizens, the N.C. Legislature and the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission (NCWRC) that the wolves were not to be considered endangered in Hyde, Beaufort, Dare, Tyrell and Washington Counties. In these core counties, the wolves were to be considered “experimental and non-essential.” At the time, this seemingly relaxed some of the very strict laws and regulations having to do with endangered species. The changes satisfied the fears of many of the landowners, hunters and pet owners in the area where the wolves were to roam.
Another fear for many of the residents in this five-county area was having these wolves roaming on their private lands and eating their domestic animals, as well as game animals such as our prized whitetail deer.
The USFWS assured us (in writing) that if a private landowner found wolves on their land and wanted them removed, that the red wolf biologist and technicians were to promptly remove the wolves and place them back onto the federal wildlife refuges where they were supposedly supposed to stay. We were also told that the wolves were not going to kill deer and would feed on other smaller animals such as the invasive nutria, opossums, rabbits, quail, wild turkeys and such.
Large farmers in the five county core area for the red wolves were paid to allow the red wolves to be on their private property. This expanded the land on which the red wolves could roam without fear of being shot, or trapped to move them back into a free zone.
At this time eastern North Carolina did not have many coyotes and for the USFWS and the wolf recovery team this meant that there was less possibility of the red wolves interbreeding with the coyotes, causing even more coyote genes to show up in their already known to be ‘coyote-red wolf genes.’
It’s still not clear exactly who (or what) caused the coyotes to begin to show up literally all over our state, but by the turn of the century it was clear to the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission that our state had a major problem with these predators.
Many western states and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service had been trying about every trick in the book to rid the countryside of coyotes for years. They used poison, hired hunters to try and kill off the coyotes out west and still the coyotes flourished. When they began to invade North Carolina, their flourishing and interbreeding with the already hybridized red wolves, the coyotes presented a major problem to the genetic make-up of the red wolves and to the future of the entire red wolf project in our state.
From the very beginning of the red wolf project here in North Carolina, the heaviest mortality among the “experimental and non-essential” animals was being killed by vehicles on the roadways and being killed by hunters who either accidentally shot one thinking it to be one of its blood brother coyotes, or being shot on purpose by local residents who just plain didn’t like the wolves.
The USFWS had a policy not to prosecute a hunter who accidentally shot a red wolf on private property (thinking that it was a coyote) if the ‘take’ was promptly reported to the USFWS. A true test of this policy happened when a landowner in Hyde County was hunting coyotes and shot a radio-collared red wolf. Following the rules set by the USFWS, the landowner called and reported the kill. A USFWS wildlife manager came and examined the animal and confirmed the fact that it was indeed a red wolf. He collected the wolf’s carcass and thanked the landowner for being a good citizen and following the word of the law. It seemed that the landowner was cleared of any wrongdoing.
All this changed a few days later when the federal game wardens showed up at the landowner’s home and charged him with killing an endangered red wolf. The penalty for killing an endangered species is severe and includes heavy fines and actual jail time.
This taking of a red wolf case went to Federal Court in Elizabeth City where the judge listened to both sides of the case and proclaimed the landowner “not guilty” because he’d followed the law after having accidentally killed a red wolf while carrying out a legal coyote hunt and reported to the proper authorities. This establishes a precedent in a federal court and, as far as I know still stands even today.
In other cases where a red wolf was killed — but not reported — and the perpetrator tried to dispose of the dead wolf to cover up his actions, he was prosecuted and punished.
It took a number of years and file cabinets full of data on these “red wolves” before I began to take a really closer look at just what the USFWS had released on us here in Eastern North Carolina. Maybe these animals were not what the federal government was making them out to be.
Our North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission, many of our state legislators, and many of our state’s hunters were opposed to the red wolf program. The USFWS and their lawyers insisted the Endangered Species Act took precedence over any state programs that interfered with the Act. When the NC legislators threatened to make it legal to shoot red wolves on private property — or off the federal refuges — the feds threatened to cut off our federal aid monies. The loss of our 75 percent federal aid matching funds would have been a disaster to our North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commissio and for years many of us Tar Heels have been more or less forced to tolerate the red wolves.
North Carolinians’ and our state’s political response to the red wolves was markedly different to that of Virginia Governor Allen. When a radio-collared red wolf from the North Carolina Alligator River Refuge mysteriously appeared in Chesapeake, Va., the gutsy Allen lost no time in telling the USFWS to immediately remove their wolf from his state. Of course, the USFWS denied they had ever placed the wolf in Virginia and said the animal had either swum across the sound or walked across on the Albemarle Sound Bridge.
Our red wolves have been inland as far as Goldsboro and have been ranging well up the Roanoke River wetlands. They do not stay on the refuges where the USFWS said that they’d keep them and, as Tyrrell County landowner Jett Ferebee has recently proclaimed (see Letter to the Editor on Page 28) federal officials aren’t able to effectively remove the ‘red wolf – coyote hybrids’ from his farm near Lake Phelps as he’s demanded that they do.
I must say that the USFWS had conducted a very successful public relations project in convincing many Tar Heels what a great thing the red wolf project is in our state. They aided in forming such groups as the Red Wolf Coalition, commissioned some questionable studies, which reported that red wolves attracted more tourists to the state than the beaches of the Outer Banks and encouraged supporters of the red wolf project to flood newspapers and press outlets with letters of support for the red wolves. They were impressive.
I believe the ever-increasing coyote population in our state may be the turning point in public support for the red wolves. There’s no question that the coyotes are damaging to our wildlife. When our Wildlife Resources Commission took positive steps to control the population of coyotes by allowing night hunting of both coyotes and feral swine (another problem animal), red wolf supporters cried “fowl” and enlisted the aid of the various animal rights groups and environmental law firms to file suit against the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission.
A federal court ruling stopped the night hunting for coyotes in Beaufort, Hyde, Dare, Tyrell and Washington Counties because of the danger of some coyote hunter’s mistakenly shooting a red wolf. Some insiders are predicting U.S. District Court Judge Terrence Boyle might even issue an injunction against all coyote hunting, pending a resolution of the lawsuit.
Over the years the USFWS has continued its efforts to establish a breeding population of red wolves in North Carolina. Similar reintroduction programs were tried in western North Carolina and in South Carolina but these attempts failed after several years of intense effort by the USFWS.
After all these years of trying to establish a breeding population of red wolves in eastern North Carolina, one has to question just how valid this project is. The red wolf managers have to constantly monitor the travels of the animals; they trap them regularly to inoculate them against diseases that true wild animals survive; they locate the wolf’s dens where the pups are obviously fathered by coyotes and do away with these half-breed puppies; they’ve trapped wild coyotes and neutered them to try and use a little birth control on these unwanted canines and still the number of the predominantly red wolves seems to, for whatever reasons, grow smaller every year.
We can’t help but question these artificial methods of trying to establish a red wolf population in our state and we seriously question the use of untold millions of dollars of our tax money to support such a program for hybrid coyotes. As tax paying citizens we have every right to demand, through the Freedom Of Information Act, that the USFWS account for all the money that they’ve spent over the past 20-plus years on this project and still have to artificially keep these animals alive by administering medications to them.
I wish our newly appointed North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commissioners the best in their efforts to allow us to have full access to shooting these coyotes that are so detrimental to our wildlife.