Red wolves are standing at a crossroads.
To the east lies a successful project to bring the endangered animals back to their historic range—now at a standstill. To the west lies a potential population that has flown under the radar until recently, with locals and wildlife researchers joining forces to learn more about them.
And Joey Hinton (PHD ’14) is right in the middle, ready for the journey.
Hinton, who has spent more than a decade researching the reintroduced population of red wolves in eastern North Carolina, is now part of a team investigating new discoveries of canids in Texas and Louisiana. Although there are differences between managing a reintroduced population and surveying for lost ones, both force difficult conversations about how to define a species – a situation the red wolf is all too familiar with.
But that doesn’t mean Hinton won’t give it a go.
“We draw different conclusions on what red wolves are because different researchers use different criteria to define species,” says Hinton, a wildlife ecologist and postdoctoral researcher at the State University of New York College of Environmental Sciences and Forestry. “At some point, we’ll come together on this issue of what a red wolf is, but everyone agrees that red wolves are unique and worth saving.”
RESTARTING AND RELOCATING
Fourteen of the last red wolves known to exist are called the founders.
Originating from eastern Texas and western Louisiana, the founders represented what was considered the best definition of a red wolf, selected out of hundreds trapped by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in the late 1970s. After an initiative to boost their numbers through a captive-breeding program, the founders’ progeny were reintroduced to coastal North Carolina, where they were given an expanse of land to establish new generations of wild red wolves.
Historically, red wolves have existed across the Southeast. Over time, humans displaced or killed them, pushing populations into smaller pockets. When the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service initiated the plan to capture as many of the remaining red wolves in Texas and Louisiana to begin a captive breeding program, reintroducing wolves in North Carolina offered a new beginning for the species.
Two decades after the red wolves were introduced, the red wolf population had grown to more than 150. But this didn’t mean they were in the clear. Despite their status as endangered, they were legally protected as “threatened” under their nonessential population classification, meaning that if a landowner happened to kill a red wolf on their land, there were little to no repercussions.
Complicating matters were coyotes. Under normal conditions, they’re not a problem because red wolves do not allow coyotes in their territories—a contrast to gray wolves that commonly tolerate them. In fact, red wolves will breach coyote territories and displace them to acquire space, effectively reducing coyote presence in areas. Problems arise between red wolves and coyotes when humans kill red wolves, forcing wolf packs to disband, and facilitating hybridization between surviving wolves and coyotes.
For example, if the male half of a breeding pair dies, the surviving female might settle for the next-best thing: an available coyote. “With no male wolves available, she’ll likely fail to breed or find a suitable coyote to breed with. So, you either have 0% overlap or 100% overlap in territories between red wolves and coyotes because wolves will either displace or breed with coyotes depending on the situation,” adds Hinton. “So, if we were to establish a mosaic of wolf territories, with available wolf mates that can be drawn from a surplus population of transients, red wolves would push coyotes out. Red wolves are the reason why coyotes were absent from the eastern United States for the past 10,000 years. Once we extirpated red wolves and put surviving wolves at a numerical disadvantage, coyotes invaded the Southeast.”
Just as the project seemed to be hitting the right marks, it ran into a speed bump. A few politically connected landowners began to push back against the red wolf, and their numbers began to decrease due to illegal killing of wolves. This increased coyote numbers in the recovery area. Warnell wildlife sciences professor Michael Chamberlain recalls watching issues arise as more voices from outside the scientific community began to weigh in. Chamberlain first lent his expertise to the project in the 1990s as part of a panel of experts tasked to develop plans to stem wolf losses.
“Once the Fish and Wildlife Service saw the coyotes were breeding with wolves, they convened a workshop to talk about how to stop this,” says Chamberlain. “The outcome was to have the Fish and Wildlife Service capture coyotes and sterilize them and release them. And then, as wolves go in from captive units, you go in and remove the coyote and replace it with a wolf.”
It was a labor-intensive approach, though, and required low anthropogenic mortality for red wolves and sterile coyotes to be effective. When environmental groups won a lawsuit against the North Carolina Wildlife Resource Commission to ban nighttime hunting of coyotes in eastern North Carolina, leadership in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service pulled back support for the project. Consequently, red wolf numbers precipitously declined from 120 wolves in 2014 to about 12 today.
But Chamberlain and Hinton had their data. They knew the ins and outs of the project. So, what do scientists do? They publish their findings.
“I was committed to the science about the animal, and I was committed to Joey because he was my student and I wanted him to be successful. And once we collect the data, it’s a disservice not to publish the data,” says Chamberlain. “Our work will essentially be the penultimate work on this species ever. Because you’re not going to do behavioral work on red wolves in the wild ever again. The only thing you’ll ever see written about this animal will be genetic stuff. That’s it. Because you will never be able to study wolf habitat use or home range sizes or denning ecology—that stuff we published, you’ll never be able to do again.”
IT’S IN THE GENES
Genetics are where the red wolves’ story takes a turn.
Because around the time the North Carolina project began to fall apart, a resident of Galveston Island, Ron Wooten, emailed a picture to wolf biologist David Mech, who in turn forwarded the image to Hinton and a collection of biologists, genetic researchers and red wolf proponents. In it, a pack of canids with large heads and a dark reddish tint to their coats can be seen lounging, playing and howling.
Could they also be red wolves?
Chamberlain and Hinton were intrigued and urged Wooten to find tissue samples to genotype. Wooten had just that—two roadkill samples he’d saved in his freezer for this opportunity—and sent them to Bridgett vonHoldt, a biologist at Princeton University and a research collaborator of Chamberlain and Hinton. “I was most grateful for the interest exhibited by these folks, as these animals were very unique,” says Wooten.
VonHoldt studies evolutionary genetics and genomics of North American canines, specifically wolves and coyotes. She’s discovered evolutionary relationships in canines, eastern wolves, red wolves and gray wolves. Genetics is one tool to dig deeper into the relationship between these animals, she says, although that picture can be clear as mud.
“Many agencies want to know if the red wolf is a distinct species. When was there gene sharing between red wolves, gray wolves, eastern wolves and coyotes? All of those things we can estimate with genetics, but much of the findings are challenging to interpret. There’s been a lot of genetic exchange between red wolves and gray wolves and coyotes in the past 10,000 years or so,” she says. “Also, agencies are revisiting their criteria for defining a species. Does that mean you have distinction in just genetics? Or is ecology and behavior also important? Everything has been an ongoing conversation.”
The red wolves we have today descended from the founders, both in captivity and in the wild, are genetically diverse—to a point. But, vonHoldt says, by using those genetics as the definition of a red wolf, it’s not the full picture of the animals and their history.
When those two samples were tested by vonHoldt’s lab, the results revealed a bit more of that picture. They showed evidence of “ghost alleles,” or red wolf genes that are different from those in captivity or released in North Carolina. Wooten collaborated with vonHoldt, Chamberlain, Hinton and others on a groundbreaking study, released in the December 2018 issue of the journal Genes, that detailed their findings
At the same time, another group of scientists used a different methodology to identify red wolf ancestry in scat collected in Louisiana. It’s presumed the last red wolves in that corner of the Southeast went extinct due to hunting or hybridization with coyotes—but what if they didn’t?
Now, a study beginning later this year will survey canid populations along the Gulf Coast for red wolf ancestry. Under direction of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the National Academy of Sciences put out a call for research in Texas and Louisiana. Hinton teamed up with another one of Chamberlain’s former graduate students, Kristin Brzeski at Michigan Technological University, to start the project this fall in Louisiana, with the goal of connecting the project with Brzeski’s ongoing Galveston Island project to get a fuller picture of red wolf genetics across the region. Melissa Karlin with St. Mary’s University in San Antonio and Wooten, a biologist by training, are also assisting with the research.
AN UNCERTAIN FUTURE
Still undetermined is how the recent wolf discoveries fit into the overall journey of the red wolf. Are they hybrids? Or something more?
Hinton says he and vonHoldt use different criteria and come to different conclusions on what the animals are. But whether they’re a hybrid species, holding genes from a bygone era, or true red wolf descendants that have been forced to mix with coyotes, the animals deserve a chance to remain on the landscape. “Regardless of our positions on the origin of the red wolf, there are ecological and evolutionary processes that are unique to the wolf and to the Southeast. Protecting the red wolf is a way of preserving those processes on the landscape,” he adds.
How red wolves are defined taxonomically also ties into their future and their protected status.
In 2018, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service published a new species status assessment and five-year review for the red wolf. The review recommended no change in the endangered status, but it also began work to determine whether the red wolf represents a “taxonomically valid species designation.” Although the National Academy of Sciences concluded that the red wolf is a distinct species, the USFWS proposed a new rule for the North Carolina project that would reduce the recovery area by 87% and the reintroduced red wolf population by 90%, restrict recovery efforts to federal land only in Dare County, and allow the legal take of red wolves that traversed off those federal lands.
“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,” says Greg Sheehan, the principal deputy director for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, in a news release. “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.”
But Hinton disagrees, because the project achieved 70% of its recovery goals when the population reached 155 red wolves. The recent population decline is a result of changes in management of the wild population. Without the red wolf adaptative management plan, plus the the loss of several USFWS biologists who were never replaced, the project floundered.
In a statement to the U.S. Senate in February 2017, Gordon Myers, executive director of the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission, testified that the Endangered Species Act needed to be modernized “to meet today’s restoration challenges” by allowing states more control. Myers, who retires from his post at the end of August, did not return a phone message seeking comment about the red wolf project.
VonHoldt says she hopes there is space on the landscape, somewhere, for the red wolf.
“The red wolf is a unique carnivore on the landscape that has a very distinct form and function and genetic signal,” adds vonHoldt. “I believe that biodiversity is important to retain, and we’re at a point where we can decide to retain it and preserve it. I’m worried the longer we sit without action, the greater the chance we face losing our chance to keep red wolves on the landscape.”
Hinton is now working on a paper that offers advice on how to move forward with recovery efforts. There is a template for success—he participated in that success in North Carolina, and it can be revived. But there needs to be willingness by the USFWS to make it to work.
Also, he says, there is strong support in eastern North Carolina for red wolves and growing support for them in east Texas and western Louisiana. “Compared to 15 years ago when very few people knew about the recovery project, there is a lot more public support for the red wolf today because of the recent headlines. The more eyes on the project, the better for the wolf,” he says.
"I think you’ll see new efforts for recovering this animal. I don’t know if that’s two years down the road or 10 years, but I think the Fish and Wildlife Service will eventually be forced to do something.”