Red wolves to return to Cape Romain
AWENDAW — No red wolves haunt Cape Romain today. The animal that became the emblem of this place can’t be found as federal managers celebrate the 25th anniversary of its reintroduction to the wild.
The red wolf
One of only two species of wolves worldwide.
Slightly smaller than the gray wolf; larger than the German shepherd dog.
Eats rabbits, deer, raccoons and rodents.
Named because of reddish fur behind the ears, along the legs and neck.
Nearly wiped out as a varmint in the early 1900s.
More than 100 now roam about 1 million acres in eastern North Carolina because of a reintroduction program at the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge; 200 maintained in captive breeding facilities throughout the United States.
Sources: U.S. National Park Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife
That’s about to change, again. The iconic wolf is coming back home.
Two 4-year-old sisters now at Salisbury Zoological Park in Maryland will be moved to a public viewing pen at the Sewee Visitor Center in Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge, by November and maybe as soon as October. They will replace older wolves that were moved out so the pens could be repaired.
They could be followed by a breeding pair as early as next year.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is again studying the bigger question — whether to try to restore more of the native species to the wild here.
Despite previous setbacks, there’s a guarded optimism this time.
“It’s a greater reality today,” said David Rabon, Fish and Wildlife red wolf recovery coordinator.
The tawny red wolf once was the marauder of the Lowcountry coast. A settler’s account written in 1718 talked about the howling wolves hunting deer “in great droves in the night” and “making the most hideous and frightful noise.”
Like wolves everywhere, the population here was poached and hunted out of existence.
In 1980, biologists declared the “pure” population extinct in the wild nationwide; few captives remained.
As part of a greater reintroduction, Fish and Wildlife in 1987 began a wild breeding program on Bull’s Island in Cape Romain.
The wolf species has long been reviled in the West as a livestock killer, but re-establishing it in the Lowcountry met with interest and little opposition.
Before long, the canine won people over. It became the signature of the refuge, the hard-to-spot critter people came to get a glimpse of. Occasional escapes to nearby beach islands became popular events.
More than 25 wolf pups were wild bred on the island and relocated to the more expansive Alligator River refuge in North Carolina, the only area in the country where the wolves can be released.
Plans to establish packs in 10 mainland sites never happened. At the third site where they were reintroduced, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, they didn’t survive in enough numbers because of lack of food, poisonings and car collisions.
Meanwhile, the success of the Alligator River breeding program and a succession of budget cuts ended the Bull’s Island program. The breeding couple pen at Sewee is considered a backup.
The thing in the way of re-establishing the wild breeding program on Bull’s Island is the thing that ended it in 2005: money. The program was phased out to save about $15,000 per year. The wildlife biologist position that would oversee it remains unfilled in a time of staffing cutbacks.
“It really comes down to the budget,” said Sarah Dawsey, refuge manager. “We would love to have them back on the island. It’s a unique experience to be able to walk among the wolves.”
Rabon thinks it could happen, because factors such as ecotourism and popular interest will be weighted in the new study looking at potential reintroduction sites. And the service has learned more about managing wolves in the wild near populated areas.
If more sites open up, the Bull’s Island breeding program could return as a complement to the method now used, captive breeding that moves newborns to wild litters.
The island itself is too small to maintain a population, Rabon said, but larger areas in the region might.
“There’s still a lot of landscape out there. I think it’s more about coexistence,” Rabon said.
In the Lowcountry, ecotourism already is a tourist draw and revenue producer. Ferry trips are run to Bull’s Island.
“Ecotourism wasn’t as much discussed when we started the reintroduction system,” Rabon said. This time, “it will be more of a collaboration (with) any partner that wants to come to the table and work with us.”
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