Paddling Milltail Creek late in the day, I’m told you could sometimes hear the red wolves howling and howl in response, pretending yourself wild and the last of your kind. I’ve only been there once, on a cold day in February, and I was alone.
There are few wolves left to howl now. The attempt to return red wolves to the wild has largely failed, first in the Smokey Mountains and then here, in the swamps of the Alligator River, where it all began.
The sky and horizon reflected in the still water of Milltail Creek.
The Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge is arguably best known for its wolves, the only population of red wolves not in captivity. The rewilding of the wolves was first touted by the US Fish and Wildlife Agency as a conservation success, a species saved from extinction by a captive breeding program and returned to its natural habitat, what once was its natural habitat before the land was ditched and drained and planted with crops.
In September 1987, four male-female pairs of wolves were released in the wildlife refuge. It was the first introduction of an apex predator to its previous range, even before the grey wolves in Yellowstone. Their peak population reached 100 to 115 wolves in 2014 but have declined since. By 2018, only 35 wolves remained. In 2020, only seven collared wolves were left in the refuge. There were no pups born in 2019 or 2020.
The failure of the conservation program wasn’t entirely the fault of the US Fish and Wildlife Service, although bureaucratic ineptitude and feckless leadership played a part.
In 2014 the agency began issuing permits to local landowners to kill red wolves on private property. The five counties surrounding the refuge (Dare, Tyrrel, Hyde, Washington, and Beaufort) had been designated as a Red Wolf Recovery Area where hunting wolves was prohibited but wolves were still killed. Some were roadkill; more were gunshot. Many residents thought the wolves dangerous pests that preyed on livestock, pets, and deer.
There was public outrage when one of the wolves killed was a breeding female. A Federal court eventually ruled that the agency had no legal right to permit the killing of an endangered species and was in violation of the will of Congress.
In 2015, the agency ended placement of young wolves into the refuge from the captive breeding program. Without the influx of new wolves, the population attrited from disease, malnutrition, and misadventure. The single greatest cause of mortality was gunshot.
In 2018, the agency proposed that the wolves’ safe range be reduced to the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge only, allowing the hunting of wolves in the Red Wolf Recovery Area. A viable population can’t be maintained on the 152,000 acres of the refuge alone. In effect, the agency had surrendered hope for wild wolves in coastal North Carolina.
To be fair, the agency was opposed by powerful political forces and landowners. The success of grey wolves in Yellowstone is largely because there is plenty of prey and few people. That’s not the case on the Alligator River. Human history has proven we will not tolerate another apex predator to live among us. The Fish and Wildlife Agency is now looking for other sites where red wolves might be more successful. More remote sites, presumably.
Near its headwaters, Milltail Creek narrows and snakes through wetlands that were once the stage of revenue men and moonshiners.
A Stake Through the Heart
Ross Riley stood at the podium and leaned into the microphone. His hair was cropped close as if grazed by sheep but with a long, white goatee. His skin was tanned, probably from a lifetime outdoors. “I’ve lived in Manns Harbor since 1980,” he said.
Manns Harbor is a village of less than a thousand people that clings to the shore of Croatan Sound on the edge of the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge. On Google maps, the most distinguished feature of Manns Harbor is Vertigo Tattoo & Body Piercing.
“I’m here to drive a stake through the heart of this program,” Riley said.
The program Riley was there to impale was the reintroduction of red wolves to the wild. Riley was at the podium to offer his opinion of the rule change proposed by the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) regarding management of red wolves on the Alligator River National Wildlife Reserve. The FWS wanted to withdraw protection of red wolves from the Red Wolf Recovery Area—the five counties that surround the refuge—and retrench to the boundaries of the refuge itself. If approved, people could kill red wolves as easily as coyotes if caught outside the refuge.
Riley wasn’t only in favor of reducing protection for red wolves, he wanted them gone entirely. “These things are coyotes. That’s all they are. Three quarter coyote, one quarter wolf.”
The Myth of Genetic Purity
It seems disingenuous to accuse an animal of being genetically impure. After all, at what point would we disqualify people from being human because of the taint of their neanderthal genes?
Hybridization is a risk to the red wolf community on the refuge, especially as mating females are removed from the population, mostly by gunshot and roadkill, but the FWS successfully managed the risk by trapping and sterilizing local coyotes, until they didn’t.
The genetic purity of red wolves has been debated, decided, and contested among biologists for generations. A study in 2016 determined that all wolves and coyotes of North America descended from a common ancestor between 6,000 to 117,000 years ago. All North American wolves have a significant amount of coyote ancestry and all coyotes some degree of wolf ancestry. But it wasn’t really the genetic purity of red wolves that most concerned Riley. It was the competition.
“Apex predators,” Riley said and threw his hands in the air. ““We have bears, wolves, coyotes, and alligators. They have a place in the world…” he said, leaving the sentence unfinished. A place in the world, he seemed to suggest, just not here.
Riley’s main objection to apex predators was their impact on the deer population. Specifically, killing deer in competition with humans. Apparently, he was unaware that deer harvests in the Red Wolf Recovery Area had increased since the red wolf was reintroduced in 1987.
Or that deer are still considered a serious crop pest locally. Farmers in the Red Wolf Recovery Area are still issued permits to shoot deer out of season to reduce their numbers.
Or that wolves play a critical role in trophic cascades and the overall health of the ecosystem.
For Mr. Riley, as with many who object to the presence of the wild red wolf population in the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge and the surrounding Red Wolf Recovery Area, I suspect personal perception was more convincing than data. It was a matter of faith, not fact. Ironically, printed on his t-shirt was the legend “I gotta know…”
A winter sky reflected in the still water of Milltail Creek.