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The red wolf comes home

By HR / November 17, 1986



IT says something about the maturing of our society that, our own habitations secured, we humans can devote attention to ensuring the preservation of other species as well, and their habitat. Four pairs of red wolves, bred in captivity in Tacoma, Wash., were flown to North Carolina last week as a first step toward reintroducing them into the wild. The wolves will winter in holding pens as they make adjustments to the new area - including the adjustment from packaged dog food to dining in the wild. Then in the spring, three pairs will be given the run of the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge, where, it is hoped, they will be fruitful and multiply. (A fourth pair will be held in reserve, so to speak, in case any of the others come to harm.)

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US government scientists are calling this the first attempt in North America to reintroduce into the wild a predator extinct in its natural habitat. The shy, secretive, cinnamon-colored red wolf once ranged widely across the Southeastern and South Central parts of the United States.

But its numbers dwindled, especially as wilderness land was cleared for farming. In the mid-1970s, federal agents rounded up the few hundred surviving animals to establish a captive breeding program.

This sort of operation can require years of fieldwork to learn about the breeding habits of a threatened species. And once a species is extinct in its natural habitat, that habitat may well be turned into a shopping mall. So it can take considerable effort, as it did in this case, to find a suitable refuge where animals can be reintroduced.

Scientists often find to their distress that their resources limit them to trying to rescue only one of several species they would like to save. Priorities may be set according to which creatures capture the imagination, and financial support, of the public.

And the public - the immediate, next-door public - must often be persuaded to welcome wild creatures as neighbors. Many of the people living near the (unfenced) Alligator River Refuge, for instance, already unhappy with the bears in their area, are less than enthusiastic about the prospect of running into a wolf.

But US Fish and Wildlife Service officials held hearings in eastern North Carolina on the red wolf project; they got at least enough positive response to feel they could proceed. And scientists are hoping the wolves will retain their natural shyness, which will help keep them from dangerous encounters with human beings.

It can be so hard for humankind to escape the ooze of asphalt across the countryside and to reach out to the order of the natural world. But in trying to preserve the wilderness in its natural state we preserve something of the natural state in ourselves.

Welcome home, red wolf.