“Another day, another dead wolf — actually, make that two.”
The digital characters glared at me from my phone message center. I sucked in my breath involuntarily. It was Tuesday, November 16, and it was a bleak day for the Red Wolf Recovery Program.
The message was sent by a biologist I’ve interviewed over the past year for a book on the natural history of Canis rufus. Red wolves are federally protected and they are an entirely separate species from gray wolves, which are known to scientists as Canis lupus.
So far this year, four red wolves have died from unlawful gunshot wounds, and a few additional cases are under active investigation for apparent illegal take. On average, six to eight red wolves have died by gunshot annually in the past three years. The Fish and Wildlife Service biologists working to recover red wolves say 2010 is shaping up to be above average.
Red wolves are shot when hunters or gun-wielding people in the recovery area mistake them for their more common cousin, the coyote (Canis latrans), and then pull the trigger. (At least, the shooters claim they mistook them.) It’s legal to shoot coyotes anywhere and anytime in North Carolina, including the red wolf recovery range.
“We’re really not sure if some hunters are mistaking the red wolves for coyotes and shooting them, or if they are targeting red wolves,” says Ryan Nordsven, a biological technician with the recovery program. “In all likelihood, it may be a combination of both.”
There is only one spot on the whole globe today where wild red wolves live: a 1.7 million acre area on the Albemarle peninsula of North Carolina. There are 65 radio-collared red wolves here, plus 42 puppies were born this spring (39 of these pups are uncounted among the collared population). They are considered one of the most endangered canids on earth by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, and they were among the very first batch of species to be listed under the Endangered Species Act when it was signed into law in 1973.
Red wolf biologists say the gunshot deaths spike during deer- and bear-hunting season, which doesn’t close until January 1, 2011. Art Beyer, a biologist with the program who coordinates the field team, says that bear season always seems to be worse because many hunters come from out of state, or other parts of the state, and may be unfamiliar with the wolves or their highly endangered status. A two-week bear hunting season runs from November 8-13 and December 13-25.
“Unfortunately, it’s often the breeders that we lose by gunshot,” Nordsven says. Gunshot losses make up about a third of the deaths of breeding red wolves; but since 2004 breeding individuals have composed about 80 to 85 percent of the wolves that are shot, says Red Wolf Recovery Program Coordinator David Rabon. Breeders are sexually mature males and females that lead a pack composed of offspring from previous years. Packs may number two to eight animals. The loss of a breeder can contribute to packs breaking up, and to coyotes infiltrating the red wolf recovery area if their home ranges become unstable.
The FWS biologists generally discover the dead wolves when they do aerial telemetry flyovers and pick up radio collars broadcasting in what’s known as mortality mode (a special signal that emits when the animal has not moved for 12 hours).
The recent deaths have struck Nordsven and the program’s four additional field biologists hard. The red wolf program hinges upon intense field work. As a result, the biologists know the life histories and details of each of the wolves in the wild population; they find the wolves when they are one to two weeks old to tag them with rice-grain-sized ID chips, and once they place radio collars on them at age one or two, they know their every movement based on weekly aerial telemetry flights.
People convicted of killing a red wolf illegally can spend a year in jail and be fined $100,000. Although the burden of proof is upon the hunter to know what they are shooting before they pull the trigger, folks who claim they thought they were shooting a coyote are typically not prosecuted.