JWM: Red wolf reintroduction on path toward extinction

By David Frey

A recent study in the Journal of Wildlife Management warns that red wolves are headed for extinction in the wild unless changes are made in the reintroduction program. ©B. Bartel/USFWS

Current efforts to recover the red wolf (Canis rufus) in North Carolina are bound for failure, a team of researchers concluded, unless releases of captive wolves are resumed and takes of wolves, both accidental and intentional, are reduced.

“The reintroduction program is doomed,” said Juniper Simonis, lead author on the study in early view in the Journal of Wildlife Management, which predicts that without significant changes to the management plan, the wild population will become extinct within 40 years.

“Sadly, the current trajectory is going in the way that we predicted in the paper, perhaps even faster than we thought,” said Simonis, an adjunct research scientist at Chicago’s Lincoln Park Zoo who led the study as part of postdoctoral work at the zoo.

Once common throughout Southeast, the red wolf vanished from the landscape in the early 20th century due to predator control programs and habitat loss. It was designated an endangered species in 1967. Twenty years later, the first wolves were reintroduced into the wild. In 2015, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which oversees the recovery program, suspended releases from the captive population while it evaluated and made changes to the program.

The JWM study depicts a wild wolf population in North Carolina that peaked around 2010 and has been falling swiftly. In 2016, the Service estimated 45 to 60 red wolves in the wild, down from 95 to 110 in 2013. Numbers for 2017 weren’t available, but Simonis expects the decline has continued.

“At this point the population is in an extinction vortex,” Simonis said. “It’s just not going to be able to replace itself and it’s heading toward extinction in the wild.”

Researchers analyzed three decades of data on individual wolves in wild and captive populations. They concluded that the wild wolf population “appears to be at severe risk of extinction” unless releases are resumed and mortality in the wild is reduced.

Many wolf deaths are caused by humans, Simonis said. Although hunting of the wolves is illegal, incidental take is possible by hunters and trappers who may mistake them for coyotes, which are somewhat similar in color and size. In other cases, poachers intentionally target the wolves.

USFWS records for 2013 to 2015 show human-caused deaths far outnumbered natural deaths. Of the 17 wolf deaths reported in 2015, four were believed to be the result of gunshots, one from poison and three from suspected illegal take. Only one death was confirmed to be from natural causes.

“In order for the population to survive, we need to get the mortality rate down,” Simonis said.

Simonis urged that releases should be resumed, but not if the wolves face likely mortality when they reach the wild, and should follow hunting bans near wolf populations and efforts to increase public support for the controversial species in nearby communities.

After addressing the human component, Simonis said, the size of the captive population should increase and releases into the wild should resume. About 200 red wolves are in captivity in zoos and other facilities.

The captive population is in good shape, Simonis said, but increasing it could improve the species’ genetics and improve the results of reintroduction.

TWS members can log into Your Membership to read this paper in the Journal of Wildlife Management. Go to Publications and then Journal of Wildlife Management.

David Frey is an editor at The Wildlife Society. Contact him at dfrey@wildlife.org with any questions or comments about his article. Read more of David's articles here.

You can follow him on Twitter at @davidmfrey.