Verdict on red wolf program expected by the end of the year

By on July 14, 2017

(U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

By Catherine Kozak
Coastal Review Online

The fate of red wolves could be settled by year’s end, when wildlife managers are expected to finish reconsiderating the management of the endangered predator in the wilds of northeastern North Carolina.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is seeking suggestions from people who live in the five-county red wolf recovery area — parts of Hyde, Tyrrell, Washington, Beaufort and Dare counties — to address conflicts and promote cooperation.

As part of a process set out under the Endangered Species Act, the agency is reviewing management strategies and assessing alternatives to draft a revised management rule.

“These rules that we’re operating under were written in ’95,” Pete Benjamin, field supervisor in Fish and Wildlife’s Raleigh office, said at a scoping meeting in Manteo last month. “A lot has changed, so that’s why they’re being rewritten.”

Most detrimental to the wolves is the change in their population: From a peak of about 150 in 2005, there are 40 or fewer now roaming the 1.7 million acres in the recovery area.

When coyotes arrived on the Albemarle Peninsula in the 1990s, the neighborhood for wolves went downhill quickly. Coyotes look similar to red wolves, making it easy to mistake one for the other. It is illegal to kill red wolves but permissible to shoot coyotes.

Since October 2016, there have been eight known wolf deaths: five from gunshots, one from poison, one from a vehicle strike and one from natural causes.

One of the more serious and worsening issues is that wolves will mate with coyotes, creating a problem with hybridization and questions about whether wolves are even genetically wolf enough to warrant protection.

Meanwhile, conflicts have increased with private property owners. Landowners have complained about the animals depleting the numbers of deer for hunters, killing pets and livestock and endangering and scaring people.

“We’re looking for ideas,” Benjamin told the packed meeting room at the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge headquarters.

Under the Endangered Species Act, a review of designated species is supposed to be done every five years. But the most recent review of red wolf management was in 2007. In September, the agency proposed changes that, among other things, would limit the wolves’ range to Alligator River refuge land and the Navy bombing range in Dare County.

The wildlife service is also considering potential re-introduction sites. A species status assessment — a snapshot of the likelihood, or not, of species recovery — is also planned, as well as a revision of the Endangered Species Act rule that governs what the law calls “the non-essential, experimental” population of red wolves.

An environment assessment or a more complicated and lengthier environment impact statement will be conducted, but Benjamin said he does not know when that will be decided. When the proposed rule is completed, it will give a detailed picture of updated management options. Portions of the updated reviews also may be released prior to publication of the rule.

By any account, it’s been a conservation roller coaster for the red wolf. The species had been declared extinct in the wild at the time four pairs of captive wolves were transported in 1987 from Texas to Alligator River. Complex  management strategies, including placement of captive newborn pups in dens with wild pups, led to steady increases in the wild population. Even after coyotes encroached on wolves, a “placeholder” method that involved using a sterile coyote to keep out other coyotes was used successfully to protect wolf territory.

But budget shortfalls, increased controversy and numerous other challenges have forced the wildlife service to re-think its wolf recovery program.

“The way we’re doing things is very labor intensive,” Benjamin said. “We’ve got to manage things wolf-by-wolf.”

Radio collars have been placed on 26 of the wolves, and their locations are monitored once or twice a week by airplane. Dens are also still inspected, but no longer are newborn captive pups placed in a wild litter.

The wolf recovery program costs about $1.2 million a year, Benjamin said.

Jett Ferebee, a Tyrrell County landowner and Greenville developer who has led the charge against the red wolf conservation program since at least 2013 — most publicly on the online forum — attended the meeting in Manteo, but declined to be interviewed afterward.

In the past, Ferebee has accused the wildlife service of breaking the law by not permanently removing trespassing “coywolves” from private property.

Benjamin said in a recent interview that the most recent DNA analysis in 2014 has shown that red wolves have about 4 percent coyote DNA. But red wolf genetics is not settled science, and the agency is continuing to work with researchers on the issue.

From the beginning of the recovery program, there have been conflicting opinions about whether the red wolf is indeed a separate species, or just a wolf version of a mutt. As it is now, Benjamin said, it is listed as endangered under the ESA, and the wildlife service is obligated to protect it until and if the status is changed.

“It’s kind of something that overarches everything to do with the wolf populations,” he said.

Public sentiment on the wolves, he added, ranges the full spectrum. The agency’s goal, he said, is to hear reasonable ideas from landowners, hunters, tourism people, area residents and environmental groups on ways to make wolf conservation more effective and to help differentiate between wolves and coyotes. It is also important to better engage the public so that wolves may be judged to be a benefit in communities where they exist, he said, rather than a burden — “anything to make the program more efficient, effective and successful.”

Even as a veteran wildlife manager, Benjamin sees red wolf conservation as more difficult than most. There’s the usual antipathy toward the federal government, coupled with state versus federal control, then multiplied by private property versus public policy versus environmental conservation friction. But bringing wolves back into environments where humans live can be a tough sell.

“More so than most (issues), when you’re talking endangered predators and their re-introduction,” Benjamin said, “it is particularly complicated.”

D.J. Sharp of Kill Devil Hills worked in 2009-10 as a caretaker for the wolves in Alligator River. Sharp is rooting for the wolves, but he acknowledges that success will not come easy.

“I feel that the people involved are very conscientious and have done as good a job as can be done,” Sharp said after the meeting. “Obviously, the public needs to support this for it to work.”

But under the circumstances, Sharp said, he thinks it will be “very challenging” to restore the wolf population in the current recovery area.

“A friend of mine has talked to some of the hunters,” Sharp said. “He said they told him if they had the opportunity to shoot one (a wolf) illegally, they would do so without hesitation.”

Joe O’Grady, owner of Coastal Kayak Touring Co. of Kitty Hawk, which offers tours in Alligator River refuge, said he sees the red wolves as an asset to an area that prides itself on its rich natural resources. Still, coyotes may have ruined the wolves’ newfound chance of survival.

“Most people root for the underdog,” O’Grady said. “The coyotes moved in and it became a big human conflict.”

For O’Grady, the way to help the wolves is to “stop shooting them.”

“Educate people,” he said. “They’re not weakening the deer pack. If anything, they make the herd healthier.”

Kim Wheeler, the executive director of the nonprofit Red Wolf Coalition in Columbia in Tyrrell County, said she is concerned about the wolves’ recovery, and she wants to trust that Fish and Wildlife sees the wolf population as a value to the ecosystem.

“I think at this point in time, it’s going to take everybody’s collective voices to make this work,” she said. “I think it’s important to engage the stakeholders. I like to think we can all have a rational conversation.”

At the same time, she said she sees nothing wrong with resetting the program.

“I just know we can’t go back in time,” Wheeler said. “I guess the simple answer is we need to find a way for these animals to stay in the wild. We owe it them.”

Public comments will be accepted through July 24. Once the proposed rule is completed — expected by the end of the year — there will be another public meeting and another opportunity to comment.

To submit comments
Electronically: Go to the Federal eRulemaking Portal: 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!”

By hard copy: Submit by U.S. mail or hand-delivery 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.
Comments will be posted on

Comments and suggestions needed

  • The appropriate size and scope of the non-essential, experimental population area.
  • Contribution of the non-essential, experimental population to recovery goals for the red wolf.
  • Tools for population management.
  • Management strategies to address hybridization with coyotes.
  • Appropriate provisions for “take” of red wolves.
  • Protocols for red wolves that leave the non-essential, experimental population area, including, but not limited to, requests for removal of animals from private lands.





  • John VanderMyde

    Thank for including the genetic information, I can see a bit more of an argument that they are a separate species with only 4% coyote DNA. However, if the other 96% is all grey wolf, it seems like the species could be re-introduced at any time by cross breeding, and perhaps it’d make more sense ecologically and management wise to just put grey wolfs out there. Is there any unique red wolf DNA?

    Friday, Jul 14 @ 8:20 am
  • dave

    Is it me, or does that Red Wolf pic look really inbred?

    Friday, Jul 14 @ 11:31 am
  • Greg Hamby

    A full Wildlife spectrum is good for business here and good for Wildlife. That is how it was created/evolved way before folks like Mr. Ferebee came along and it all worked as intended however you choose to believe that Nature began.
    26 % of visitors surveyed by the Dare County Visitor bereau visitor preference survey visit here for Nature activities. Over 50 % visit for Parks, Refuges and Natural areas. Many of those interested in Nature visit here in the “off season” which is a great help to local business. The booming business of The Outer Banks helps counties like Tyrell and Hyde. Business here generates jobs and revenue which our mainland neighbors share in.
    To think that even 150 red Wolves could affect the deer population in the area where they are present is preposterous.
    Man has the greatest negative effect on most all wildlife Worldwide.

    Friday, Jul 14 @ 12:35 pm
  • Jon

    John, a more recent study showed that the red wolf was about 25% grey wolf and 75% coyote.

    The argument is about how long ago that hybridization occurred, so the 4% figure is probably more recent interbreeding with coyotes. Still, the red wolf is mostly coyote.

    Friday, Jul 14 @ 7:54 pm
  • Mark A Williamson

    Sorry, but a doomed project from the start. My dad was career F&WS, and that was his opinion on day 1. A complete waste of time and money were his exact words.

    Saturday, Jul 15 @ 8:48 am
  • Browny Douglas

    Personally I have been furious at USFW since it saw fit to attempt to trap and kill every fur bearing creature on Hatteras Island to protect Plover and turtle eggs. However that project could not be implemented unless our NCWL commission signed off on it. Which it did!!! Damnit!!! Now days Dare like the other 99 NC counties has a coyote problem. Anyone heard a peep from the bleeding hearts about the coyotes eating turtle or plover eggs? I haven’t. Maybe it has been determined that their taste buds are different from all the animals they chose to eradicate. I feel it is just a matter of time before someone’s child meets the dinner fancy of some hungry coyotes. I sure hope that feeling is wrong.
    Mr Hamby, obviously you have not seen a video of coyotes courting pregnant deer so as to help them give a speedy birth. Reckon they eat the fawns??? You know not!!!
    Browny Douglas

    Saturday, Jul 15 @ 12:00 pm
  • Katherine Roberts

    I think it might be helpful to listen to someone who has first hand knowledge who might be able to guide you through this system. Click on the link and listen to Mose Brings Plenty.

    Saturday, Jul 15 @ 12:12 pm
  • Greg Hamby

    The enemies of nature are truly disappointing worldwide Jon,Mark, Dave and all the rest who think they should be ruling what God intended….a Red Wolf looks nothing like a coyote…other than it is a Canid….

    Saturday, Jul 15 @ 2:10 pm
  • Browny Douglas

    I do not blame the scarcity of deer totally on the rapid increase of coyotes we have experienced. There are at least two other substantial reasons. One was the onset of a hemoragic disease commonly called “blue tounge”. Some areas of eastern NC experienced a 90% loss of its deer herd according to wildlife biologist. This occurred 5 or 6 years ago. Another is the density of our bear population. I say this based on another study some years back that said a healthy deer herd coupled with a healthy black bear population that the bears would eat 50% of the fawns.
    So between a natural diseases, bears, and now coyotes the deer herd has a tuff row to hoe.
    BTW eastern NC has been credited with having the most dense black bear per capita population of anywhere in N America with the exception of one small area of Lousiana.
    Browny Douglas

    Saturday, Jul 15 @ 2:31 pm
  • Leary Sink

    The spread of the eastern coyote has doomed any chance of the success of this program from the beginning.
    Because the red wolf which is a hybrid (75% coyote and 25% grey wolf) can and will mate with a coyote.

    We now have them in at least 5 counties in Eastern North Carolina which can not effectively control their coyote population because of the ESA protection of the red wolf.

    In the beginning of the red wolf program I was a supporter, but I can not see supporting this any longer with tax payers money as this is the second failed attempt at this “experiment”.

    Sunday, Jul 16 @ 12:20 am
  • Leary Sink

    As far as controlling coyotes in the state, the NCWRC did a study on the fox populations in the state about 4 years ago and concluded that in counties which have a fox trapping season that the harvest of coyotes was higher in those counties not including coyotes shot by hunters.
    The study proposed that WRC have control of fox as fur bearers and
    have a state wide fox trapping season similar to deer hunting seasons.
    At present fox are listed as a game animal controlled by legislature with no science based data on harvest or population studies. The fox hunters using hounds can chase fox almost year round even when fox are nursing new pups and even when the temps reach record highs like this past week.
    Currently there are local fox trapping laws in 43 of the 100 counties.

    Sunday, Jul 16 @ 11:50 pm
  • Mark A Williamson

    Ugh, they went extinct in Eastern NC with Gods blessing apparently Mr. Hardy. Reintroducing a species is more God like i think.

    Monday, Jul 17 @ 1:30 pm
  • Charles Peele

    I think the people who come to Dare County to view wildlife can be observed along NC12 on Pea Island. They have large camera lens and tripods to snap pictures of waterfowl. Yet to meet anyone who came to see a fox, coyote, red wolf, raccoon, possum, or nutria. They will watch a baby turtle release if it is anounced and they are already here. Their money is welcomed in the economy.

    Monday, Jul 17 @ 10:02 pm
  • Aimee Merino

    Red wolves are a natural part of the ecosystem and deserve protection. Americans need to learn to live with wildlife. These animals belong in their current location and all of the current problems were caused by hunting them to death in the first place. More of the same is not the solution. Red wolves and nature activities are a major tourist attraction and should not be jettisoned.

    Tuesday, Jul 18 @ 10:31 am