In the future, the mountains of West Virginia’s Monongahela National Forest might echo to the howl of the red wolf.
According to a study by the Center for Biological Diversity, the 900,000-acre “Mon” is one of several large tracts of public land in the southeastern and Mid-Atlantic regions where the critically endangered species could flourish if introduced.
Currently, about 35 red wolves are known to exist anywhere in the world. Most of those are found on North Carolina’s Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge. The International Union for Conservation of Nature lists the species as “critically endangered.” It’s also on the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Endangered Species List.
Interestingly, the United Nations’ Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species does not list it as endangered. Perhaps that’s because there appear to be as many questions about the red wolf as there are answers.
The first question is whether the red wolf is a separate species (Canis rufus) or the result of crossbreeding between gray wolves (Canis lupus) and coyotes (Canis latrans).
A peer-reviewed 2018 genomic study, published in the genetics journal of the Public Library of Science, found red wolves to be a gray wolf-coyote admixture — 40 percent wolf and 60 percent coyote.
Currently, the Endangered Species Act does not provide protection for endangered admixed animals. Even so, researchers on both sides of the debate over the red wolf’s genetic origins believe this particular admixed species warrants full protection.
Despite their name, red wolves aren’t as large as their gray-wolf counterparts. They range in size from 50 to 80 pounds, significantly bigger than western coyotes but significantly smaller than grays.
Red-wolf advocates argue that the species once was widespread across the eastern U.S., mostly south of the Mason-Dixon Line. To them, placing red wolves in national forests and wildlife refuges is simply reintroducing them where they once flourished.
Fair enough; but placing them in those areas also raises issues.
Scientists believe interbreeding with coyotes has been a key factor in the red wolf’s decline. Unless I’m mistaken, the Monongahela has a thriving coyote population. Wouldn’t putting the wolves there risk further dilution of the species?
Proponents of red wolf reintroduction believe the wolves, once established, would simply out-compete the coyotes and become the ecosystem’s dominant predator.
Again, unless I’m mistaken, might that not wreak havoc on the Mon’s deer population? During a 2012 study of coyotes’ dietary habits, West Virginia University grad student Geriann Albers found deer remains in 60 percent of the animals’ stomachs and droppings. With that in mind, wouldn’t “outcompeting” coyotes mean “able to kill and eat more deer?”
Red wolves look a lot like coyotes. Could introducing them to the Mon bring with it a prohibition on killing coyotes, so as to avoid cases of mistaken identity? Could it bring additional restrictions designed to protect endangered species?
Frankly, I don’t know the answer to these questions, but I believe they’re questions well worth asking.
As much as possible, wildlife officials need to weigh all the potential consequences before they take action on the red wolf. They don’t have much time. At the current rate of decline, the species’ survival is anything but certain.