Red wolves shown to have ecological value, even as species fell towards extinction

For immediate release ‐ November 20, 2023

Contact: Jon Pishney, 919.707.8083. Images available upon request

RALEIGH, NC – A new study published in Animal Conservation has revealed that the recent dramatic decline of endangered red wolves in North Carolina coincided with significant increases in multiple prey and competitor species on lands within the red wolf recovery area. The findings support the idea that this rare wolf species had been exerting important ecological impacts before its rapid decline due to poaching in recent years. While the influential role of gray wolves is now widely appreciated after studies showed remarkable changes in the ecology of Yellowstone National Park after gray wolves were returned, until now, no similar research has been conducted on the critically imperiled red wolf.

The study tracked wildlife detection rates from 2015-2021 using dozens of motion-activated camera traps within the Alligator River and Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuges. These protected lands form the core of the red wolf recovery area in northeastern North Carolina. The fieldwork was led by researchers from Wildlands Network, with collaborators at N.C. State University and the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences analyzing the data.

“This study adds to the growing body of evidence that reintroductions of large predators have ecological impacts, with the caveat that these impacts can decline rapidly if the predators dwindle back to critically low numbers,” said lead author Alexa Murray.

The results showed that after the red wolf population crashed from poaching, populations of prey species like white-tailed deer and wild turkey held steady, but mesopredators, including raccoons, opossums, bobcats and bears, showed large increases. For example, the raccoon detection rate doubled from 2018 to 2021 as wolf numbers declined.

“This study is important for two big reasons: First, we’ve been able to dispel the rumors that red wolves cause a significant collapse in deer populations. There were still plenty of deer at all of our camera sites, even with the wolves, bears, bobcats, alligators, and human hunters. Second, by showing that red wolves do seem to have valuable ecological impacts on other wildlife species, our research makes it all the more urgent that we protect the existing wolf population in North Carolina and return red wolves to more of the wild areas across the southeast,” said Dr. Ron Sutherland, Wildlands Network’s Chief Scientist, who initiated the research back in 2015.

“The importance of long-term camera trap studies cannot be understated, especially when working with a cryptic and endangered species like the red wolf. Our seven-year camera trap dataset gave us an incredible resource for investigating what is going on with the wildlife in the Red Wolf Recovery Area,” said Murray.

Black bears were the most frequently observed species during the study, with a total of 20,554 detection events. “The amount of bear photographs was remarkable, their population is very high, and according to this work, still growing,” said Dr. Roland Kays, study co-author and Head of the Biodiversity Research Lab at the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences. White-tailed deer were the second-most-common wildlife, with 12,373 detection events.

The red wolf was once common across the southeastern United States. Still, a combination of persecution by early settlers and habitat loss drove the species to the brink of extinction by the 1960s. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service captured the last remaining red wolves in the 1970s to launch a captive breeding program.

In 1987, the federal agency began a successful reintroduction effort in eastern North Carolina, eight years before the gray wolf reintroduction program started in Yellowstone. The red wolf recovery effort served as the model for reintroducing gray wolves, and red wolves were the first large carnivore species in the world to be returned to the wild. The reintroduction in N.C. saw red wolf numbers grow to over 120 animals by 2012. However, due to cuts in federal support for red wolf recovery and an increase in the spread of misleading claims that the wolves were causing a wildlife collapse, poaching surged from 2014 to 2018, with the wild population declining to around 15 wolves by 2020. New litters of pups in 2022 and 2023 and a resurgence in support from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service have sparked hope among conservationists that red wolves can rebound again with continued management and protection.


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