WESTERN KY (5/31/12) – Red wolves used to be the native wolf of Kentucky, and now only two exist in our entire state.
Land Between the Lakes (LBL) is home to a male and female pair of red wolves, who are both part of a coordinated breeding project with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS). The pair are currently part of a live animal exhibit at the LBL Nature Station.
“We are one of forty different breeding facilities in the United States dealing with red wolves,” explained LBL lead naturalist John Pollpeter. “We’re the only place in Kentucky that actually has red wolves, even though this used to be the native wolf of Kentucky. Not only is it unique to the south, it is unique to us.”
The red wolf is known for its reddish-brown fur, and can weigh anywhere between 45 to 80 pounds. They usually measure about five feet long from nose to tail, and generally stand at around 26 inches at the shoulder. Red wolves can live in a variety of habitats and help to maintain the stability and health of ecosystems by removing old and sick animals. They eat raccoons, rabbits, white-tailed deer, and small rodents. They also protect ground-nesting birds such as quail and turkey, by eating smaller predators.
“There are only about 250 to 300 in the world, and only 100 of them exist in the wild in eastern North Carolina,” says Pollpeter. “If we get the call we may be breeding these two particular wolves this year, or hopefully the next.”
Red wolves are endangered because they have some pretty stiff competition out in the wild.
“Those threats are humans, which take up a lot of space, and coyotes,” explained Pollpeter. “The problem with the coyote is that they moved into the south, and have basically taken over the role that once was held by red wolves.”
“People have so many misconceptions about wolves,” says LBL naturalist Carrie Szwed. “Since they’ve been gone, coyotes have come in and taken over. Red wolves can actually breed with coyotes so if you were to try to release the two red wolves we have here at Land Between the Lakes, they’d probably just breed themselves out of existence.”
“Coyotes are more adaptable,” says Pollpeter. “Wolves still have this visage. They don’t hang around humans. You wouldn’t find a wolf in suburban Nashville if they were around. Wolves are just a little bit shyer. Plus, a coyote is able to eat both plants and animals, and they’re able to breed a little bit better. If you were to release red wolves in an area that has high coyote populations, you’d end up with big red coyotes.”
Due to loss of habitat and human persecution, a managed breeding program was established in 1973 at Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium to protect the remaining red wolves and increase their numbers. The program was successful and eventually led to the reintroduction of red wolves in the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge in North Carolina. Red wolves currently inhabit a five-county area in northeastern North Carolina, yet continue to be one of our planet’s most endangered species.
“We’ve had wolves here since about 1991, and we’ve been a breeding facility since about then,” says Pollpeter. “Originally, Land Between the Lakes was a proposed site to release red wolves in 1983, but we never got past the public opinion stage. In 1983 that was new, nobody has ever done that before, nobody has introduced a predator back into its former range. It was very controversial and obviously it didn’t go very far.”
“We’ve had different generations of red wolves here at Land Between the Lakes,” pointed out Szwed. “Our newest female is about 5-years-old, and we’ve had her for three years. Our male is eleven-years-old, and he’s been here for eight or nine years. Hopefully, one day they will actually give us permission to breed these two so they can have pups.”
“These two particular wolves, the male came to us from the North Carolina Zoo and the female has come to us from the Beardsley Zoo in Connecticut. Now, the interesting one is the male, because he is part of a litter that they did something very unique with. Jane Goodall even wrote about this in her recent book. They did something called ‘wild fostering’.
Pollpeter tells SurfKY News that this is the first time that wild fostering has ever been done. The male’s litter, including his brother and sister, were born in the North Carolina Zoo. The puppies were then taken from the zoo and given to a wild mother to raise alongside her litter.
“So they mixed them in with her puppies of the same age in the wild,” explained Pollpeter. “The advantage of this is that you just mixed up the genetics in the wild, and you have the wild mother teaching them how to be wild. It’s the first time they have ever tried this, and it was so successful that they are looking at doing this with other species around the world. The other pups from the litter were released into the wild through this method where they were raised, out in North Carolina.”
Currently, the USFWS, the Red Wolf Species Survival Plan (SSP), and Red Wolf Coalition (RWC) have united to protect the species. The USFWS Red Wolf Recovery Program is the main component of the joint effort, and is primarily responsible for the red wolves revitalization. They carefully monitor the wellbeing and development of the red wolf population. The Red Wolf SSP serves as an important safety net by supervising red wolves at approved zoos and nature centers across America. These Red Wolf SSP facilities are important to the long-term diversity and stability of red wolves. The RWC uses outreach and education programs to advocate for the long-term survival of wild red wolf populations. The RWC works to promote public appreciation and involvement in the group’s efforts.
“They pay really close attention to who breeds with who to make sure that the gene pool is as diverse as possible,” says Szwed.
“Even though they are an endangered species, there are forty other facilities that have them,” explained Pollpeter. “If we were to all have puppies at the same time, then the problem is where to put them once they grow up. There is limited space in captivity; there is limited space out in the wild. So they have to be very careful who they allow to breed and what their genetic makeup is.”
Pollpeter tells SurfKY News that the breeding program is basically working with fourteen animals. When the Endangered Species Act (ESA) was enabled to basically save the red wolf, there were only fourteen red wolves remaining. Those involved in the breeding program have to be really careful to avoid inbreeding and the genetic problems that could result from that.
There are things you can do to help efforts to conserve these endangered animals. Educate yourself and spread your knowledge to others. Wolves are often misunderstood. The more you know about them, the more successful you will be at changing people’s mindset when it comes to the way they view these animals. Expressing your concerns about wildlife is a huge help as well. Talk to elected officials, lawmakers, and leaders of civic and business organizations. Ask them to support wildlife conservation programs, initiatives, and local efforts.
“We want to relay the message that these are still wild animals,” points out Pollpeter. “They are not dogs and cats, like our pets. If you see a bobcat in the wild, or you see an eagle in the wild, you don’t want to try to approach it. You still want to give them that respect of being a wild animal, and not something that is tame or tolerant.”
Photos courtesy of Land Between the Lakes
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