Lowcountry’s own red wolf in dire straits in the wild (copy)

An endangered red wolf walks its enclosed habitat at Sewee Visitor and Environmental Education Center in the Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge near Awendaw.

The South’s last wild red wolf population is on the verge of collapse.

Just over a year ago, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) announced plans to shrink the Red Wolf Recovery Area in North Carolina by nearly 90 percent. This would, according to scientists, result in the extinction of the red wolf in the wild. FWS recently released a five-year status review that seems to reaffirm this plan.

Once abundant throughout the Lowcountry, the world’s rarest wolf can now only be found in eastern North Carolina, just inland of the Outer Banks. But many South Carolinians may not know that this native wolf partly owes its existence to conservation work carried out in the Palmetto State.

For nearly 20 years, red wolves roamed Bulls Island, part of the Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge. Within the safety of the island, 26 pups were born, most of which eventually joined the wild population. The red wolf recovery effort became a conservation success, unlike anything seen at the time. In fact, the successful gray wolf reintroduction effort in Yellowstone National Park was born of the model produced in the Carolinas. It was hoped that, in the coming decades, a new population of red wolves would spill down the coastal plain and return to its South Carolina range.

Unfortunately, the species never got that chance. Shortly after the population peaked at over 150 wolves in the mid-2000s, two landowners in North Carolina launched an anti-wolf campaign and inspired a small contingent to rally against the federal government. Their crusade was aided by the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission, which positioned the state against the red wolf and called for the species to be declared extinct in the wild.

This combined effort took its toll on FWS. Caving to pressure, agency administrators in Atlanta dismantled essential recovery tools and ignored rampant poaching, with predictable results. Fewer than 40 red wolves remain in the wild today.

Although this collapse may have been celebrated by a vocal few, red wolf protection clearly has the support of North and South Carolinians. Thousands of people annually stream through Awendaw’s Sewee Center to view captive red wolves.

For years, the Bulls Island program inspired a shared sense of conservation purpose between the Carolinas that resonates today. Farther north, thanks to the effort of both states and other captive facilities, the Red Wolf Recovery Area is proudly recognized as a vital home of the South’s native wolf — a place where people can still witness a wild, living symbol of our natural heritage.

This enthusiasm was made clear during the latest public comment period: Over 55,000 people submitted comments to FWS, 99.8 percent of which were opposed to the agency’s plan. A mere 25 comments were anti-wolf and only 10 backed FWS. Even in the Red Wolf Recovery Area, 68.4 percent of people voiced their support for the species.

With the wolves’ future now unknown, FWS has two simple options: Stick to its latest plan and kowtow to the demands of the NC Wildlife Resources Commission, with extinction in the wild and decades of wasted effort as the inevitable result, or acknowledge what went wrong, recommit to the species and reestablish a thriving population.

The red wolf should be a point of pride for not just Carolinians, but all Southerners. With tall, pointy ears and a slight build, the species is uniquely adapted to the heat of the Deep South. We must fight for this species’ survival in its natural habitat and not allow it to go the way of the Carolina parakeet and ivory-billed woodpecker. Encourage FWS Acting Regional Director Mike Oetker to uphold his agency’s conservation legacy and recommit to the South’s native wolf.

Christian Hunt is southeast program associate with Defenders of Wildlife.