The last few of the planet’s wild red wolves, among the most critically endangered on the planet, hang on in coastal North Carolina’s Alligator River region. You can also see them at Roanoke’s Mill Mountain Zoo, part of a national network of captive breeding facilities where red wolves await hoped-for release into the wild. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, their legal custodian, is looking for new places to reintroduce them. Virginia qualifies.
Red wolves once ranged from northern Florida to southern New York, and west to the Mississippi. Last year, the Center for Biological Diversity spotlighted Virginia as a fine possibility for reintroduction and pointed to research studies suggesting the nearly 3,000 square miles of national forests in the western counties.
Wolf researcher Joseph Hinton of the State University of New York, who has worked off and on with the red wolf rescue program for 20 years, has a different take. The many wildlife refuges, farms and forestlands of the Eastern Shore are “the best option for Virginia,” he told me. The Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge alone includes more than 20 square miles of beach, dunes, marsh and maritime forest.
Virginia’s state political leadership, avowed supporters of the environment and of sound science, should move quickly to bring this critically endangered species back to our public lands, where they would provide natural controls on populations of small mammals and deer, for a healthier ecosystem.
Red wolves are smaller than western gray wolves, larger than coyotes and shy of humans. Since their first release in North Carolina, they’ve been extraordinarily nonaggressive. Only six incidents of their preying on chickens or pets have been confirmed there in more than 30 years. By contrast, Virginia sees more than 10,000 attacks on humans each year by another canine — pet dogs — according to state public health records.
Biologically speaking, it wouldn’t take much to start a program in Virginia, but it won’t happen without a high-voltage spark of initiative from the upper levels of the Northam administration and its natural resources secretariat. But the state’s former Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, newly rebranded as the Department of Wildlife Resources (DWR), has always been hunter-centric, its new name notwithstanding. Ninety percent of its budget is funded through the sale of hunting licenses.
While some hunters welcome the prospect of richly diverse and healthy natural systems, others may see unwelcome competition. But did someone say there’s a shortage of deer? A 2016 Virginia Department of Transportation study counted 61,000 deer-vehicle collisions in a single year, and they accounted for 1 in 6 vehicle insurance claims. The damages average a formidable half-billion dollars each year. We could use some predators.
A DWR wildlife biologist has raised other credible though surmountable objections. “I believe that there is no area in Virginia that would be suitable for the reintroduction of red wolves,” Mike Fies has written. “Such an experiment would be expensive, unpopular with local residents, and have very little chance of success.”
He notes correctly that red wolves sometimes interbreed with coyotes. But wildlife biologists have worked out amply documented, highly successful strategies at Alligator River that nearly eliminated the coyote problem. Another objection is that Virginia’s wild landscapes may not supply enough small prey for wolves to thrive. That can be assessed.
More than 100,000 people wrote the Fish and Wildlife Service to express support for the red wolf program — only 1 in 1,000 dissented. It’s easy to find out how many Virginians agree.
But a measure of local resistance is a given, at least initially. Gunshot mortality is now the leading cause of death among the North Carolina red-wolf population, partly because they are often mistaken for coyotes, and mostly because their derelict federal custodians, deeply compromised by political considerations, have failed to protect the wolves for the past five years. In North Carolina, a majority of landowners welcomed or were indifferent to the presence of wolves, according to survey research. Most cooperated in allowing wildlife managers onto their land. Nearly 100 private landowners signed a petition in support of the project.
Reps. A. Donald McEachin and Don Beyer, both Virginia Democrats, co-authored an October letter to the Department of the Interior and the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) to urge salvaging the all-but-abandoned red wolf program, signed by 22 other House members. It advocates “additional, new sites for red wolf reintroductions” and “expanded engagement with local communities.”
Virginia’s state leadership can consider the example of North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper (D) and his resources secretary, who have warned Interior Secretary David Bernhardt that “The continued decline of this critically endangered species is unacceptable . . . it is critical that the FWS take action to increase the existing wild red wolf population.”
Virginia can help pull red wolves and other endangered species back from a ledge we have nearly pushed them off. But, Hinton told me, “you will need resource agencies that are committed to defending their project. The wolves will be fine. . . . It’s just a matter of getting people to stop shooting them.”