Six critically endangered red wolves were introduced into the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge in coastal North Carolina.
The discovery of the litter tightly huddled in an earthen den marks a significant turnaround for a red wolf rescue program that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service all but abandoned a few years ago.
During a Thursday teleconference, the Red Wolf Recovery Program at the refuge informed conservation groups and others who work on behalf of the wolves that the tiny pups were in fact a red wolf litter and not coyotes, which are prevalent in and around the refuge.
The program later publicized the births in a Facebook post, saying, “This new litter is the first wild-born litter of red wolves since 2018,” resulting from a red wolf pair doing what comes natural: “establishing their territory and mating. Every generation yields a new born hope for the red wolf…a cause for joy and celebration!”
But the post did not tell the backstory of why the litter of four females and two males is so improbable. Red wolf births under the recovery program became rare after Fish and Wildlife bowed to pressure from state game officials who, with little evidence, blamed the wolves for reduced deer populations and attacks on livestock.
The service executed an about-face from its 40-year mission to breed the nearly extinct animals in zoos and restore both their numbers and hunting prowess by releasing them into the wildlife refuge. Conservationists watched in shock as local hunters killed protected wolves and Fish and Wildlife accepted claims that the deaths were accidental.
When the service broke a cardinal rule and gave private property owners the right to shoot to kill wolves that strayed on their land in 2016, the Southern Environmental Law Center sued and won. In a scathing court decision two years later, a federal judge accused the service of abandoning its congressional mandate to protect red wolves and voided the permission to shoot them.
The red wolf program dates back to the Jimmy Carter administration, when the Interior Department rescued the last genetically pure red wolves from a population that had been decimated by government-sanctioned hunting.
Red wolves were so close to extinction that some mated with a natural enemy, coyotes, to perpetuate the species. The survivors were bred in zoos and, 10 years later, an experimental population was released into the North Carolina refuge in a bid to repopulate the animals in the wild.
Two breeding pairs expanded to nearly 140 in the early 2000s, a biological feat that Fish and Wildlife hailed.
But it did not last long. In the next decade, North Carolina turned on the program as state officials joined a few private landowners in calling on the federal government to end it. Pressured by the state, North Carolina’s red wolf population went into a free fall between 2012 and 2015, dropping to 50.
Meanwhile, a state program that allowed coyote hunting resulted in numerous red wolf deaths. Hunters who killed wolves claimed they mistook them for coyotes. Auto collisions killed even more wolves.
Even after the court decided in favor of the wolves in 2018, the problem got worse. The population fell from 50 to about eight when the service moved to dramatically curtail the recovery program by proposing to stop introducing wolves into the refuge and restrict the movement of the few that remained.
“The red wolf hit rock bottom as a wild species … right as humanity was heading into the depths of the pandemic,” said Ron Sutherland, chief scientist at the Wildlands Network, which fights to protect wolves. “The red wolf was nothing but a ghost of a species at that point, clinging to reality only by virtue of the 200 captive animals scattered in zoos across the country.”
And then, “against all odds,” Sutherland said, “the red wolf found supporters high up in Biden’s Department of Interior.”
In November last year, Fish and Wildlife reversed course and withdrew the 2018 proposal. The court verdict, the agency said, empowered it with the authority to use captive red wolves to restore a population that once roamed the entire eastern United States and portions of Louisiana and Texas.
On April 12, the program recorded what it called a milestone: the release of a red wolf family at a remote area of Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge in North Carolina’s Inner Banks. The family of five — a breeding pair of 6-year-olds, their 2-year-old female, a male and another and 1-year-old male — were transferred to the refuge from Salisbury, N.C.
A week later, on Tuesday, workers in the recovery program confirmed the litter of six, the offspring of a mother identified by the number 2225 and possibly a father with the number 2323.
The male was one of two wolves that were relocated to the Alligator River refuge from St. Vincent National Wildlife Refuge in December 2020, Fish and Wildlife officials said. Within weeks after being released from an acclimation pen the next year in February, the male ran off a coyote that was hanging around a younger female, took its place and established a territory.
“The two red wolves have been paired,” the program noted at the time, “giving biologists hope that they will produce young in the spring of 2022.”
The couple did not disappoint.
“When I saw the photo of those pups all piled up under some tree roots, my heart just about exploded with happiness,” Sutherland said. “And now, suddenly, I think they have a future again. Those pups can save their species, if humans do their job and if humans leave them alone.”