The fourth killing of a critically endangered red wolf since September in Hyde County, N.C., raises alarm for those part of the revitalization effort.
The red wolf species nearly faced extinction three decades ago and has recovered slowly through captive breeding efforts, but the recent attacks threaten the small population now living in the wild in North Carolina. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has offered a reward up to $2,500 to anyone with information about the red wolf death that occurred Nov. 14 as a result of a suspected gunshot wound.
“There are a certain number of people who do mistakenly shoot these animals, but there are also a good number of people who know they are shooting red wolves,” said Frank Simms, National Wildlife Refuge System law enforcement officer. “In both circumstances they are investigated equally, regardless.”
The original red wolf population size was in the tens of thousands and spanned across the country from central Texas to Pennsylvania, said Robert Wayne, North Carolina Wildlife Resources commission officer. An excess amount of hunting, however, throughout the 19th and 20th century dwindled the population size to 17 wolves in the Southeast.
When the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service saw the wolves nearing complete extinction, the Red Wolf Recovery Program was created—a mass effort that rounded up the remaining red wolves and put them in captivity for breeding in the 1970s. As a result, the wolves were officially declared as extinct in 1980 since no species remained in the wild. Because wolves had to be purebred in order to partake in the program, only 14 wolves served as the founders of the initiative.
A small population of around 100 wolves now live in five northeastern counties of North Carolina as a result of the program’s efforts. The recent death, however, alarms those who have seen an increase in the deaths by hunting of the already devastated species in the past couple of years.
The red wolf is protected under the Endangered Species Act, which provides conservation for ecosystems that fish, wildlife and plants depend on and penalizes anyone who breaks the provisions of the act. A person charged with the unlawful taking of a red wolf faces up to one year imprisonment and $100,000 in fines.
“A lot of these typically go unsolved and the ones that go unsolved would be the ones who know what they’re shooting,” Simms said. “We are constantly finding animals where the collar was cut off or the animal was found with no collar, which leads me to believe that someone knew what they were doing and tried to hide the evidence.”
The collar allows members of the Recovery Program to track the wolves’ whereabouts as well as alert hunters that these are endangered animals, Simms said. He added that people who usually shoot the animals by accident typically call to say they have shot the animal since there is a collar on it.
Wayne said there has been an increase in gunshot mortality in the past seven years. Previously, only an average of two animals each year died as a result of gunshot wounds since the program began. In the last seven years, however, around six to eight red wolves were killed due to hunting.
“When hunting season is in full swing, when there are more hunters in the field, it’s going to cause more animals to be shot,” Simms said. “There’s no evidence suggesting it’s the same person.”
Wayne, however, believes there are many factors contributing to the increase in deaths, one of which is a desire to kill wolves because they are perceived as bad creatures who do not serve a purpose—a sentiment that extends back into the 1800s.
“Initially the hunting was this fear of top level predators—that the wolf is a big bad creature that is going to steal your babies,” Wayne said. “That same mentality has been brought over—they don’t serve a purpose, therefore they must be eliminated.”
He added that people also enjoy hunting the animals for sport since wolves are strong and tough, making them difficult to take down.
Simms said sometimes hunters will kill red wolves, mistaking them for coyotes, which are often viewed as “pest species.” Coyotes are not an endangered species.
“You’ve got people who are out to kill red wolves because it’s a symbol of toughness, people who want to eradicate them because they fear [them]...and then people who honestly mistake them as a pest species,” Wayne said. “It’s a new problem now.”