This is an open letter to the NC Hunt & Fish forum* which contains a thread on red wolves. For some time now, posters have quoted and excerpted materials from my book, The Secret World of Red Wolves, to uphold their perception that the red wolf reintroduction program in northeastern North Carolina ought to be shut down. This is a cynical political ploy, as the central thesis of the book is that red wolves are unique, are native to the Southeast, and are so rare in the wild that extreme measures are necessary to conserve them.
Speaking of rare, I’m preemptively turning off comments for this post — something I’ve never even thought about doing previously. The reason behind this decsion lies in the uncivil, and at times aggressive and bullying, tone which is often taken on this forum thread, and which is sure to spill over here. This letter is intended to communicate my thoughts on the misrepresentations of my work — and my character — on the forum. I do not wish for this post to become a place where anti-red wolf and pro-red wolf supporters lob firebombs at each other, as has played out in other online spaces.
Libel on the NC Hunt & Fish forum?
It has been personally and professionally disconcerting to see my writing misconstrued, misrepresented and quoted out of context on this forum. But most galling, poster “BR549” recently insinuated that I was dismissed from the Red Wolf Coalition Board of Directors because the group was displeased with my book, which (supposedly) the Board has only just now come to realize supports the position of shutting down the Red Wolf Reintroduction Program. (Post #1574)
Both suppositions are flatly untrue.
This claim is false, uninformed, and in my opinion it is libelous. It defames my character by insinuating my professional writing and research were poor, and that I lost my position on the RWC Board due to their displeasure with the outcomes of my book. Neither accusation is true; both are groundless; and both are intended to harm and degrade me, and my work, personally.
Although I’ve let slide for months the sometimes atrocious misquotes and misinterpretations of my writing on this forum, I can not let slide misrepresentations of my character. The poster rather narcissistically claims that since they alone have “connected all the dots” of facts represented in the book, that somehow they have made the RWC Board see the light and understand that my book undermines the red wolf program and supports the anti-red wolf crusaders. This is absurd. What the Board sees is that someone is misconstruing my work to misappropriate it for their own uses. And while none of us can control that, we can call out the egregious personal accusations made by poster BR549.
This forum is publicly available. It is indexed by Google. It’s users ought to be made fully aware that what they post there is governed by laws covering libel.
For the poster in question to make the above assumptions based solely on the appearance and disappearance of my name from the RWC website reminds me of Plato’s allegory of the cave. It’s impossible to discern true knowledge when one only casts their gaze upon shadows of reality.
Setting the record straight
For those interested to know what actually transpired, I was asked to join the RWC Board around the time my book was released in 2013. Despite having a one-year-old baby, and enormous work pressures helping my husband launch and grow his private dental practice, I joined even though I knew in advance that I would not have much time to devote. However, it later became clear the position was in conflict with certain professional journalism societies I wished to join and become a member of in order to advance my career.
I resigned around a year after joining the Board in order to pursue membership in one of these organizations, which expressly prohibits political lobbying on environmental issues. The board acknowledged my resignation came at a poor time in terms of optics, as a few landowners in the red wolf recovery area had begun to agitate quite hard against the program. A fight was brewing. They were sad to see me depart, but they understood.
Since resigning, I remain in touch with the RWC Board Chair, and I consider our relationship to be healthy and good. The Board has continued to express support of my book and to promote it. They’ve been kinder and more generous than I can adequately express.
Let me be clear: the RWC Board is not at all unhappy with me for writing the book, though they are deeply unhappy with the people who foment discontent in Red Wolf Country by using parts of the book in ways that were never intended, that none of us can condone, which no one foresaw, and which none of us support. Nor has the Board suddenly become afraid that information in the book supports the anti-red wolf movement. The chair of the board read an advance copy of the book (as did the red wolf recovery program coordinator), and has studied the contents at length. It’s rather sad to know that users of the forum think that just because some parts of the book were posted in their forum and perverted to support a position that my work does not embrace — that somehow this action has caused the RWC Board to swoon with regret that the book was published at all.
My book rejects the view that red wolves are “hybrid mutts”
It’s also rather galling to hear reports, from pro-red wolf supporters who follow this forum, that a certain poster is claiming my book supports the view that red wolves are “hybrid mutts.” This, again, is untrue. The careful, thoughtful, analytical reader will see that I reported exhaustively on all sides of the debate concerning red wolf origins. I did not leave parts out to manipulate the reader into adopting my personal perspective: instead, I provided all the information possible to create a richly detailed narrative of the three different models of red wolf origins. (That’s right, there are three!) Yes, some people in the book do claim that red wolves have a hybrid origin, but this is clearly not a view that I embrace in the book. I faithfully represented, and carefully explained, the various models so that readers could ponder all the information that shapes this scientific debate.
It’s absurd to me that anyone can read the text and then use it to claim I embrace a view that the concluding chapter of the book patently rejects (that red wolves are hybrids.) Just because the book reports on the three different models doesn’t mean that it endorses all three: the inclusion of this material is the result of my objective reporting on the scientific debate at hand. To have left anything out would have been dishonest. So yes, I included materials on the origins of red wolves that I do not personally accept.
Again, let me be perfectly clear: I support the model of red wolf origins which purports they are descended from a New World evolved canid lineage which also includes the coyote and eastern Canadian wolf. Under this model, red wolves are more closely related to eastern Canadian wolves than to any other species; and they are comparatively closer in evolutionary origins to coyotes than to gray wolves.
In the last section of the book, I quote a wildlife geneticist who told me that the modern red wolf population is around 4 percent introgressed with modern coyotes. This is the same proportion of genetic introgression that some humans of European descent carry from Neanderthal hybridization. Are we mutts too, then? The nuance of the debate over red wolves and hyrbdization lies less in how the modern population is hybridized (and to be fair, several experts I interviewed said the current level of outbreeding was healthy for the red wolf population!) — and more in what the baseline genetic makeup of the red wolf was at the time of European contact. This is a question that science has no good answer for, yet. To truly answer this, we would need to have a red wolf specimen with viable DNA that is 500 to 1,000 years old — even older would be better.
As it is, genetic sampling from the modern popultion has drawn two radically different conclusions: the oldest idea being that red wolves are the hybrid offspring of coyotes and gray wolves; while the newer idea espouses that the “coyote-like” genetic material found in red wolves is not of coyote origin — rather, it is from a shared ancestor with coyotes. In this line of thinking, red wolves (and eastern Canadian wolves) represent a speciation event that diverged from a New World evolved canid lineage which also led to the coyote. The latter is an interesting ecological narrative, and is the most cohesive explanation for not only the genetic affinity of red wolves, eastern Canadian wolves and coyotes, but also for their behaviors. We know that species that have diverged recently in geological time are more likely to hybridize with one another than more distantly diverged species. This helps to explain why red wolves and eastern Canadian wolves hybridize under certain conditions with coyotes, but gray wolves (which evolved in the Old World and are more distantly related to coyotes, red wolves and eastern Canadian wolves) have never been observed to do anything but chase and kill coyotes. There are no known instances of gray wolves and coyotes breeding in the wild; though gray wolves around the Great Lakes will breed with eastern wolves, hybrids of which appear to have brought coyote genetic material into the gray wolf population.
And this is the amazing thing about species: they are fluid, not discrete units that can be bound and reliably delineated by human-constructed artifices. Species change over time. They swap genes. They may even look the same morphologically though their genetic makeup has morphed. As frustrating as it is for biologists trying to study them, species don’t always stay the same over long (or even short!) periods of time. The point that I make in the book is that while the red wolves we have today may not be exact genetic replicas of what populated our Southeastern forests in the past, they are the closet thing we have left. They are exceptional enough to deserve conservation protections, and further scientific study.
I’m reminded at this juncture of a quote by wildlife geneticist Bob Wayne. After several hours of interviewing over the phone, he told me that he thinks people “see what they want to see” when they gaze upon red wolves. Though I don’t aceept the conclusions of Wayne’s professional work, this was a profound statement because it’s true. The fact that posters on this forum have so badly mangled my work as to twist it to support the case that red wolves are “mere hybrids” further exemplifies Wayne’s observation.
Red wolf regulations sorely out of date
The most recent brouhaha over red wolves has a tangled and sordid history. The current 60-day review has all the feel and flavor of retaliation on the part of the NC Wildlife Resources Commission, which requested the review of the FWS after losing a lawsuit over coyote hunting in the Red Wolf Recovery Area in mid May of this year. The lawsuit sought to protect red wolves by halting an open season on coyotes in the recovery area, since coyotes and red wolves can be visually similar and it seemed that red wolves were being shot in cases of mistaken identity. Sore at losing the suit, it appears the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission then demanded the Fish and Wildlife Service perform the review. The review will have three possible outcomes: terminating the red wolf program, modifying it, or continuing it as is. (You can guess which one the State of N.C. is gunning for.) Add to this a handful of landowners who have fomented agitation against the program (which has begun to gain traction in the past year) and things have spiralled downhill quickly from the time when I was reporting my book and making regular visits to the area.
One of the consistent issues I’ve observed in the recent debacle is that the regulations governing the red wolf reintroduction program are outdated. It’s not just that they are old, it’s that they are based on outmoded scientific understanding of what red wolves need. These regulations were originally drafted for the start of the program in 1987 when little was known about red wolf ecology and virtually nothing was known about large or medium-sized predator reintroductions. Guidelines were established with what I believe were good intentions to both return red wolves to the wild and assuage public fears while building trust with local landowners. Originally it was supposed that a few pairs of red wolves could exist on the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge. But in time it became clear that imposing an artificial boundary on a wide-ranging canid is a folly borne to breed failure, and it also became clear the refuge was not nearly large enough. The wolves were allowed to leave the refuge, and partnerships were established with private landowners on a one-on-one basis. Promises were made to return red wolves to the refuge if a landowner wanted them off their property, and to then return them to captivity if the wolves wouldn’t stay on the refuge. This is, obviously (I mean, duh!), a failed policy from an ecological and conservation standpoint. It runs counter to the spirit of the law in restoring red wolves to the wild. If the end point is to restore red wolves to a landscape, then insisting they stay in a tiny designated area is not the way to do it. We know this now. We probably did not know this back then. I honestly believe that way back in the days when this regulation was written, the red wolf program personnel didn’t know what to expect. No one had tried to do what they were doing. They didn’t know how big to dream.
This particular regulation has proved to be an untenable management position, unsupported by biological knowledge; and the current debacle is a predictable outcome.
When I was working on my book, I was aware that there were a handful of landowners who were not happy with wolves on their property. But it appeared they were few numerically. The biologists who I interviewed were doing what they could, in good faith, to work with these property owners to resolve their issues. The situation has changed drastically since then.
I would hope that interested journalists could interview the red wolf biologists to learn more about what is going on with landowners at this point in time. It would make a great story. Honestly, it would. And my gut tells me the biologists would love to talk. However, the Southeast Regional Office of the Fish and Wildlife Service has effectively muzzled all of the program personnel and insists that all media be dealt with by regional assistant director Leo Miranda. Prior to recent events, Miranda has never fielded press for red wolves. Doesn’t that set off alarm bells of suspicion? Why now? Why doesn’t the FWS want the press to speak with the program biologists and support staff? What is the FWS Southeastern Regional Office hiding? Why are they muzzling their own bioliogists?
Where will the program go from here?
The question is, where will the program go from here? Will the Fish and Wildlife Service, at bureaucratic levels higher than the red wolf program personnel, invest in the program and modify the regulations to bring them on par with current scientific knowledge levels? Or will the FWS bureaucracy chain the program to its outdated regulations? (By comparison, how would you feel if your doctor was forced by the government to practice 27-year-old medicine on you? That’s akin to what the FWS will be doing to the red wolf if the regulations remain unchanged.)
If the latter occurs, it will all but signal that wolf recovery is wholly out of fashion among the highest ranking FWS bureaucrats.
If the former occurs, I may yet have my faith in conservation — and humanity — restored.
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* An earlier version of this post stated the forum was hosted by the NC Wildlife Resources Commission. This was incorrect, and the text is now edited.