Effort to Return Red Wolves to Great Smoky Mountains Ends in Failure

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The spine-tingling howl of the wolf, rarely heard these days across most of this vast country, is fading from another outpost.

Sometime this fall, wildlife biologists will trap the last four red wolves still loose in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, which straddles the Tennessee-North Carolina border.

Their capture will end a nine-year struggle to reintroduce the endangered animals here, in one of the largest tracts of wilderness left in the eastern United States.

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About 75 red wolves still roam free on and around two large wildlife refuges in northeastern North Carolina. But the decision to remove wolves from the Smokies, announced in October by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Park Service, marks a setback for the government’s long-term goal of restoring wild wolf populations in suitable remote places nationwide.

It wasn’t politics but biology that killed this experiment. While the government’s effort to reestablish gray wolves in Yellowstone National Park has run into fierce opposition from ranchers in the West, the red-wolf reintroduction in the Smokies drew relatively little flak. But the animals themselves balked at being resettled here.

The wolves couldn’t find enough to eat in this mountainous 500,000-acre park. Many wolves left, presumably in search of prey, and some of those that remained succumbed to disease, parasites and starvation.

Of 37 wolves released into the wild, many were recaptured after straying from the park onto private land, and six were killed--either hit by cars, poisoned or shot. Of 33 pups born in the wild, all but four are either dead or missing and presumed dead.

“We’re getting almost no survival out of these animals, certainly no survival without an awful lot of intervention on our part,” says Chris Lucash, a federal biologist who has been shepherding the wolves the last six years. Smaller than the better-known gray wolf of the West, with a cinnamon tint to its head and ears, the red wolf is a shy, relatively solitary member of the Canis family that once roamed throughout the eastern United States and as far north as Pennsylvania and west to Texas.

Red wolves were hunted, poisoned and trapped from most of the East by around the turn of the century, and by the 1960s they could be found only in the marshy woods of southeastern Texas and southwestern Louisiana.

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With the remaining animals threatened by encroaching civilization and interbreeding with wild dogs and coyotes, federal biologists decided in the late 1970s to capture the survivors and try breeding them in captivity. After an extensive search, they managed to find 14.

From that meager base, the government succeeded in producing more than 300 wolves at more than 30 captive breeding facilities, mostly zoos and wildlife parks.

The first of those captive-bred wolves was released in 1987 on the Alligator National Wildlife Refuge in northeastern North Carolina, and the population there has grown over the years and spread across 600,000 acres of public and private farmland in the area.

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That release has not been without controversy. A handful of farmers and landowners objected, and a few have filed suit to get the wolves removed. Local officials legalized shooting wolves. Republican Sen. Jesse Helms even tried to kill federal funding for the reintroduction a few years ago.

Wildlife officials proceeded cautiously in the Smokies. An initial release in Cades Cove in 1990, a largely open valley in the northwestern corner of the park, seemed successful. There was plenty of prey, including raccoons, rodents and white-tailed deer.

Meanwhile, park and wildlife officials did all they could to prevent incidents. Lucash and others spent much of their time tracking the wolves, which had been fitted with collars containing tiny radio transmitters. Their aim: to keep the animals from killing farm livestock or pets, or prowling around cabins or campsites.

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“We thought the public relations was going to be the difficult part,” says Lucash. “Most of our effort was at keeping the animals out of trouble.”

Three wolves were returned to captivity after they showed a disturbing tolerance for people; tourists were caught tossing them food in one case. Officials also spent a lot of time trying to reassure other tourists and locals that the wolves posed no threat.

But it was the habitat, not public hatred, that apparently doomed the effort. Although there was plenty of small prey in Cades Cove, deer and other large animals were hard to come by in the rugged terrain that makes up most of the park; deer like the edges of woods, not deep forests.

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Many wolves released in the mountains went looking elsewhere for food. There are 1.5 million acres of national forest adjoining the park, but the land is peppered with many private farms and home sites, which proved too much of a temptation for some wolves.

The government paid $7,900 for 24 cows and other livestock that farmers claimed had been killed by wolves since 1991. One pair of wolves learned it was easier to kill newborn calves than to hunt wildlife; they got 10 before they were recaptured and returned to captivity.

While captive-bred wolves may have lost some of their innate fear of humans, biologists had hoped the wild-born pups would have the necessary reticence to avoid trouble. That was not to be. One litter of pups was found dead, apparently of the canine parvovirus. Others had to be removed when their parents died or were recaptured.

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The four remaining wolves--two adults and two pups--will be returned either to the North Carolina refuge or to captivity.

“I kind of hate to see it happen,” says Lucash. “I’m from the mountains. I would have loved to have wolves here in the Smokies. It would have been a great place to have wolves, but unfortunately the biology doesn’t support it.”

Federal wildlife officials are searching for a more suitable place to try red wolves again, mulling over 26 parks or forests in the East with at least 170,000 acres. They insist that the Smokies effort, which cost $130,000 annually, was not a failure.

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“It was certainly within the known range of the species,” says Richard Hannan, deputy chief of endangered species for the wildlife service. “We felt we had a land base and a prey base that would support the species.

“This is not like engineering or physics,” he says. Biologists had little opportunity to study red wolves in the wild, since they were on the brink of extinction.

“If this species is going to survive,” Hannan says, “it’s only going to be through the intervention of humans. Literally the fate of this species is in our hands.”

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