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Old 03/09/2007, 05:44 PM
Samala Samala is offline
Sea cowgirl
Join Date: Jun 2003
Location: Orlando, FL
Posts: 2,570
Post A quick story about Red Wolves

Hi all!

I made an allusion to the conservation story of red wolves, Canis rufus, in this month's Reefkeeping article, The Conservation Minded Aquarist.

In case anyone is not familiar with the red wolf story, please allow me to share it with you. It is a good example of how hard it is to reintroduce species to damaged or altered ecosystems once their numbers are diminished or they become extinct in the wild.

In the Beginning:

Red wolves originally roamed almost the entire East Coast of the United States before the arrival of European explorers and the colonization of N. America by Europeans. Their range stretched from Florida west towards eastern Texas and northward all the way to present day New York City limits. At the edges of this territory red wolves overlapped slightly with coyotes, which belong mostly to the American southwestern states and grey wolves, which roamed much of the rest of the contiguous US and provinces of Canada.

While it is overly sentimental to believe that Native Americans led a peaceful coexistence with the wolves they did seem to revere them for their fleet nature and their skill while hunting. The Cherokee, who were still in Georgia at the time, called them the Wa'ya. (And no I dont know how to pronounce that, I'm sad to say!)

Then we began to fear wolves:

Europeans however, did not have a good relationship with other large predatory mammals back in the Old World and hunted red wolves proactively after they arrived to protect themselves and their livestock. Whether or not this was necessary is highly debateable, but it did still happen. Bounties were paid on red wolf carcasses and pelts in the southern US up until the late 1800s. Fear of wolves may have been spread through childhood stories (Peter and the Wolf, The Three Little Pigs, Little Red Riding Hood) and the myth of the werewolf.

As hunting pressure increased, and land was used for housing, farming and other human needs, both the suitable habitat for red wolves (connected forested areas from 25-50 square miles for a single five-member pack) and their population decreased.

Bad coyote! Bad!:

Where the red wolves ceased to live, coyotes started to move in on their territory and their population increased. Some hybridization between these two species may have occurred naturally before biologists even began to pay attention, but as the coyote numbers increased, and red wolf numbers came down, hybridization events became common. The effect was that red wolves were beginning to breed themselves out of existence.

Unlike red wolves, coyotes do well in habitat that has been impacted by humans and thrive in human environments because of a bold and assertive nature. Red wolves are far more shy and retiring. In fact, in 500 years of known history for North America, there have been no attacks by red wolves on people.

Down to 14, Start of the Breeding Program:

Fast forward a few hundred years to 1974, one year after the enactment of the Endangered Species Act of 1973. At this time several biologists, researchers and zoologists convened to take action on the status of red wolves in the US. Wolf numbers were known to be very low, but the exact status of their population was not well understood. This group decided that they would capture any wolf-like animals in several southern states to establish a captive breeding program for the wolves.

Out of an approximate 100 wolf-like animals, only 14 were found to be suitable true red wolves for use in the breeding program. And yes, this effectively means that there were just 14 red wolves left in the entire world in the late 1970s. Each of these animals entered into a fairly experimental captive breeding program and an species survival plan was established for them. Captive breeding efforts were spearheaded between Fish and Wildlife and Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium in Washington state.

In 1980, red wolves were officially declared extinct in the wild. Without the intervention of zoos and biologists, they would likely have become permanently extinct.

However, there is some good news:

In 1987 the first reintroduction were made to the Alligator River Refuge system in North Carolina. Since this time introductions have also been made to coastal islands off of Florida's panhandle and the South Carolina coast. There were an estimated 150 wolves in the wild in 2006, with an additional two hundred wolves living across 30 captive breeding facilities in the United States. Fifty pups were born to eleven packs in 2006 and there are current studies underway to understand pup dispersal, formation of new packs, disease management and the red wolf genome.

However.. there continues to be problems with the reintroduction efforts. There are still hybridizations with coyotes, which seem to have permanently moved into much of the red wolf's former range. Mange, heart worms and distemper are communicable diseases via the pet population and have devastated litters of pups and full packs in the past. Many people do not want red wolves back in their original territory, a phenomenon sometimes called the "not in my backyard" problem.

We still have a lot to learn about the reintroduction of this species, and a looooong way to go. Its just one example of how hard it is to reestablish populations once a habitat has been altered (forests cleared in some areas) or an animals' niche (or special place in the food chain) has been taken over, in this case by coyotes.

Two more interesting connections:

Red wolves may have an important place in the conservation of other threatened animals, like sea turtles. The second most common food item for red wolves is the raccoon. These cute critters are some of the biggest predators for sea turtles since they raid nests and eat eggs and hatchlings. Their numbers may be higher now than they were when red wolves were still effective predators on the east coast. Consequently, they may be eating more hatchlings.

As with grey wolves, there did exist melanistic, or black, red wolves at one time. Unfortunately it is believed that the mutation has been lost. There are no known black red wolves at this time.


So.. once again.. I'm not bashing the ideals of aquaculture and captive breeding at all. And I'll be the first to admit that this example is not exactly a perfect one to apply to an aquatic environment like a coral reef.

I just wanted to take one example that illustrates the uphill battle that habitat restoration and reintroduction can be, and how long it can take to see a positive change. Plus, red wolves just happen to be close to my heart.

"Seaweed is cool, seaweed is fun, it makes its food from the rays of the sun!"
"Wild means everyone owns it, and no one owns it." ~3rd grader

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