Dan Murphy: Old Wolves’ Tale

Preservation of the red wolf and other endangered species is a contentious topic. ( Farm Journal )

When it involves the co-existence of wildlife, animal agriculture and commercial development, some scenarios are a win-win-win.

Using grazing areas and farmland to actively support food production, as well as habitat preservation, often allows endangered species of birds, rodents and aquatic animals to maintain viable populations, even as farmers and ranchers continue to earn a living.

Wolves and other top-of-the-food-chain predators, however, are another story. Those species evolved over the millennia in which North America was mostly an unbroken expanse of wilderness, which means their hunting habits and territorial requirements are now unsuited to rural areas where forest and range are interspersed with farmland, housing, highways and commercial development.

Such is the situation with the red wolf, Canis rufus, which once roamed across most of the Southeast as far west as Texas. Thanks to the usual litany of habitat loss, development pressure and decades of what amounted to eradication efforts through hunting and trapping, their range and their numbers became so constrained that the species was placed on the Endangered Species list in 1967.

Captive breeding and reintroduction efforts began in the mid-80s in rural North Carolina, and after initially increasing, the red wolf population plateaued and is now declining. The Service’s comprehensive five-year status review recently released noted that only about 35 wolves remain in the wild, along with 200-plus wolves in captive breeding facilities.

That’s not enough to ensure their continued survival in the wild across a broad territory that includes both public and private lands.

Best of a Bad Business
So here’s how the Service is proposing to “adaptively manage” the red wolf, given that its previous tactics weren’t working and that “marginal” habitat areas — areas where farming and development preclude the larger, unbroken stretches of wilderness wolves prefer — guarantee that coyotes and coyote-wolf hybrids will dominate non-contiguous acreage.

The agency’s Draft Environmental Assessment for Proposed Replacement of Regulations for the Nonessential Experimental Population of Red Wolves in Northeastern North Carolina proposes that the Fish and Wildlife Service:

  • Restrict red wolf management area to federal lands
  • Limit those management areas to North Carolina’s Hyde and Dare counties
  • Eliminate wolf management efforts from existing private lands

A great solution? Not really.

A proposal that environmentalists will eagerly embrace? Hardly.

As the Center for Biological Diversity phrased it in an email appeal, “The Trump administration’s Fish and Wildlife Service is declaring open season on the last of America’s red wolves, one of the world’s most endangered species. These beautiful carnivores are already facing a real threat of extinction. And this new proposal would likely kill them off.”

Despite the overheated rhetoric — and the fact that most livestock producers are unlikely to embrace any plan that maintains a predatory species’ opportunity to prey on calves and other farm animals — the Fish and Wildlife Service plan is probably the best that can be done under the circumstances.

“By restricting management to Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge and the Dare County Bombing Range, we will ensure we can better reduce external threats and monitor the environments surrounding these wild wolves,” Greg Sheehan, the Service’s Principal Deputy Director, said in a statement. “A recent Species Status Assessment informed us that past strategies were not effectively leading to recovery, so we believe that a concerted effort in a managed area will help.”

Will it help? Hopefully, although you can’t blame eco-activists for getting their hackles up over another part of the proposal: “Under the proposal, there would be no prohibitions on the taking of red wolves on private lands outside the NEP (non-essential population) area, provided the killing occurs in conjunction with an otherwise lawful activity.”

In other words, if you see a wolf, you can shoot a wolf — as long as you own a few head of cattle or a couple hunting dogs you insist were “threatened” by the wolf.

The bottom line here is that habitat restriction coupled with intensive management may be the red wolf’s only chance for survival in the wild. That’s because the breed suffers from the “Panda Syndrome:” The Panda Syndrome refers to an animal species so specialized in its dietary and/or habitat requirements that it’s unable to successfully adapt to the often-significant footprint of human civilization.

Nobody can be happy about the ongoing threats to wolves, cougars, grizzlies, and other apex predators. As the experience with the few successful management/reintroduction projects demonstrate, they are a critical part of their ecosystem.

In Yellowstone National Park, for example, wolves were eradicated through deliberate hunting and trapping in the 1920s. But subsequently, the area was affected by defoliation and erosion as deer and elk herds expanded unchecked. Wolves were reintroduced in 1995, and both herd size and herd health, as well as soil and vegetation health, have significantly improved.

But unless someone invents a time machine and goes back 500 years to intercept Columbus before he claimed the entire Western Hemisphere for the king of Spain, we’re reduced to trying to keep alive what amounts to the remnants of this wolf species on a mere fragment of their former range.

There isn’t any other viable alternative.

Editor’s Note: The opinions in this commentary are those of Dan Murphy, a veteran journalist and commentator.