David Rabon, the red wolf recovery program coordinator, is cooking up a Plan B, identifying other sites suitable for reintroducing red wolves. Additional reintroductions are currently forbidden by the red wolf's recovery plan, but it's a way to hedge bets for red wolf generations to come.
He is focusing on areas that have low human population and road densities, as well as suitable prey, but that also have "the political or regulatory structures in place that will help us to establish the rules and techniques or policies that will aid our ability to recover a species." One of their partners is the Wildlands Network, which is modeling wildlife corridors and habitat connectivity in the Southeast. Rabon also says his program is "lucky" that it's dealing with a species that is a generalist. Red wolves can live in a variety of habitats and eat pretty much anything: deer, raccoons, nutria, rabbits, birds—even lowly bullfrogs and mice.
Eyeing additional reintroduction sites does not mean that people have given up on the current recovery area. One of the quirks of the Albemarle Peninsula is that it is crisscrossed with landscape-scale plumbing in the form of ditches and canals designed to bleed the region's abundant freshwater to the ocean sounds. But these same canals and ditches have been infiltrated by the sea, which now shoots dense saltwater plumes inland. The Nature Conservancy worked with others to develop a check-valve, which allows freshwater to flow outward through the canals, while halting the saltwater plumes from creeping inland. They have also installed water-level control structures and ditch plugs, which seek to hold freshwater back and slow its arrival to the sea, thereby keeping delicate peat and organic soils saturated with freshwater for longer.
Another component of the climate change adaptation strategies is assessing the salt-tolerance of different plant species. Hundreds of black gum and bald cypress seedlings were planted several years ago at a test site on the eastern side of the refuge. Christine Pickens, a coastal restoration and adaptation specialist with the Nature Conservancy, has found that only the bald cypress have survived. Many, but not all, of those trees were at the back of the site, where it was slightly more elevated. "But we're talking mere centimeters of difference," Pickens says. The point of the test was to see if salt-tolerant species planted near the shoreline could hold onto the soil just a little bit longer, keeping the habitat intact and giving species that much more time to adapt.
Research has shown that some wetlands have kept pace with sea-level changes over thousands of years. The trick is for the wetlands to accrete soils in lockstep with sea-level rise. They do this by producing leaves, shoots, and roots that decompose very slowly after they drop down into flooded soils. "The ocean is going to rise," Pickens says, "but if we can restore some of the natural processes of these ecosystems, then it helps the plants to be able to survive better and accrete sediment so that our land can keep pace with our water." And if that happens, more of the forested habitat of the peninsula will stay intact for longer, providing refuge for red wolves.
I don't blame my colleague for asking if we should just let red wolves go. If they did go extinct, most people wouldn't bat an eye. The ecological damage of losing the red wolf was wrought well over a century ago, when they were largely wiped out of the Southeast. It's not like red wolves directly affect most people's day-to-day lives; they don't clean the air or sequester carbon. They very likely don't harbor a cure for cancer or diabetes or erectile dysfunction. Reintroducing them isn't going to bring back American chestnut trees or restore the Southeast's long-gone long-leaf pine forests.
But if we did let them go, what does that say about our values? That we couldn't be bothered to devote time and money to retaining a species that our forefathers hunted and drove off the land to the point of near extinction? That we couldn't restore a unique mammalian carnivore to just a smidgen of its former range? That red wolves were just too much trouble?
For me, saving the red wolf is about more than just red wolves. We have created a world that is so altered from the one in which the red wolf evolved that it is now challenging for them to survive. Is that perhaps our future as well? In asking if red wolves are completely screwed, what I heard my friend asking was: Are we completely screwed? If we can't save the red wolf, what does that say about our ability to save ourselves?