Nearly extinct red wolves return to wild after being bred in captivity

Over the last 100 years human activity has wiped out thousands of plant and animal species. This week, the government is attemping to reverse that trend, at least for the red wolf. Eight red wolves were brought to remote sites in North Carolina last Wednesday as a part of a major program to reintroduce the endangered species to the wild. If successful, this will be the first time in North America that humans have returned an animal to its natural habitat after it has been declared extinct in the wild.

``The immediate goal is to establish a sustainable wild population of red wolves in the coastal refuge,'' according to John Fitzgerald, spokesman for Defenders of Wildlife. ``This reintroduction is also important for what it will teach us about reintroducing wolves elsewhere.''

In the mid-1970s, the US Fish and Wildlife Service recognized the danger to red wolves and captured 40 of the few remaining adults. The wolves brought to North Carolina were specially picked from the 75 red wolves now in captivity due to the government's highly successful special breeding program.

Each pair of wolves was taken to a remote location in the 120,000 acres of salt and freshwater marshes and swamp forests that comprise the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge. The area is virtually undisturbed, and hosts a rich and varied wildlife population. The refuge contains one of the last major mid-Atlantic habitats for the black bear, a significant population of the American alligator, and white-tailed deer and bobcats. Federal biologists expect the wolves to prey on marsh rabbits, gray squirrels, mice, and perhaps raccoons.

A large degree of the program's preparation was holding public meetings to allay fears about the wolf's image as a vicious killer, and generate local support. An earlier attempt to introduce the red wolf in Kentucky and Tennessee failed because of public concerns, prompting the Fish and Wildlife Service to obtain public support before this project began.

All but the southern border of the refuge is bounded by water, reducing the chances of the wolves migrating to populated areas. If a wolf does leave the refuge, it will be caught and returned. The 3M Company has designed a special collar that will inject a tranquilizer by radio control should capture become necessary.

The red wolf used to roam the entire southeastern United States from central Texas to the Atlantic coast and from southern Illinois down to the Gulf coast. A little smaller (40 to 80 pounds) than the better known gray wolf, which is still found in parts of the northern US, the red wolf is often cinnamon in color, and has almond shaped eyes over a pointed nose.

Each pair is will be held for six months in 50-foot-square pens of 8-foot-high chain-link fencing. At one site, the wolves were loaded into flat-bottomed boats for a 30-minute ride through the maze of canals through the marsh. The pen was set up a short walk (in knee-high swamp muck) away from the water's edge, out of sight from any passing boaters. The wolves will be protected around the clock and fed daily by biologists hired just for this project. Part of their responsibility will be slowly to change the wolves' diet from dry dog food to dead animals and finally to live local species.

The four pairs of wolves were matched according to genetic diversity; those animals determined to be the least related were brought together. This practice should reduce the danger of inbreeding within the relatively small population of red wolves remaining. Biologists hope that the wolves will adjust to the their new environment, and breed before three of the pairs are released next spring. The fourth pair will remain in the pen in case anything happens to one of the other three. With the release, the pens will simply be left open, in case the wolves want to maintain a familiar and secure home base. They will then be tracked by the radio transmitters in their special collars.

If the project is a success, biologists will learn valuable clues to the reintroduction of other species into the wild. Already, one environmental group is pushing for the reintroduction of gray wolves into Yellowstone National Park.

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