If you go
What: Viewing red wolvesWhere: Sewee Visitor Center, 5801 Highway 17 North, AwendawWhen: During center hours, 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesday-SaturdayTip: The best chance of seeing the wolves is during feedings 3-4 p.m. Tuesday; and noon SaturdayMore information: www.fws.gov/caperomain or 928-3803MULTIMEDIAGo to postandcourier.com/multimedia for more photos and video.
CAPE ROMAIN — The sisters are a pair, tawny red and wary, eyeing onlookers from a bed of pine needles where they are all but camouflaged.
This is their turf now, an exhibit enclosure at the Sewee Visitors Center.
The red wolf has returned. After two years, the creatures are back whose lives in the wild at Bull’s Island become the symbol of the Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge.
The 4-year-old sisters were loosed from the crates late Thursday after a long ride from Salisbury Zoological Park in Maryland.
They weren’t any worse for the wear, slipping off with the stealth of cats and the grace of deer. Dan Ashworth, the refuge biologist, sighed to watch it.
“Ah, finally. We’ve got them back in Awendaw again,” he said.
“Just to see them move, there’s that wild presence,” said Patricia Lynch, the refuge visitors service manager. “We had this empty space.”
In captivity at the center, they serve a dual purpose: educating people about the species and endangered species generally, as well as helping provide remotely located back-up populations for the wolf breeding program at the Alligator River in North Carolina. Nearly 200 red wolves are in captivity in 40 facilities across the country.
They used to serve a larger role.
Red wolves are the German shepherd-like smaller cousins of the wider spread and better known gray wolf.
Native to the Southeast, red wolves were once the marauders of the Lowcountry coast. A settler’s account in 1718 talked about the howling wolves hunting deer “in great droves in the night and “making the most hideous and frightful noise.”
Hunted down as livestock killers, the “pure” red wolf population was considered extinct in the wild by 1980, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service launched a recovery program with a wild breeding program on Bull’s Island.
The program bred 25 pups, the impetus to restoring a wild population now at about 100 wolves at Alligator River.
It didn’t take long for the stealthy canines to sneak into the hearts of the Lowcountry. The hard-to-spot island wolves drew a stream of visitors with just the thought that they might see one. Occasional escapes to nearby islands became popular events.
Budget cuts ended the program in 2005; the wolves were captured and relocated. A handful remained penned at Cape Romain in the exhibit enclosures.
The sisters replace older wolves that were moved two years ago so the enclosure and a breeding enclosure alongside could be repaired. Refuge managers hope a breeding pair will join the sisters before too long.
Meanwhile, Fish and Wildlife researchers are again studying the bigger question — whether to try to restore a native population to the wild here.
The old varmint wolf, it seems, has become an eco-tourism draw, and the service is pushing for nature tourist revenue.
Reach Bo Petersen at 937-5744, @bopete on Twitter or Bo Petersen Reporting on Facebook.