After spending three years working on a book about imperiled red wolves, I was talking with a colleague who asked me: "So, is the red wolf completely screwed?" She lowered her voice and continued in the hushed tone one reserves for discussing the dying. "Should we just, you know, let them go?"
Red wolves are what you might call, in polite conversation, conservationally challenged. They were among the first batch of species listed under the Endangered Species Act when it was minted in 1973, and they were on even earlier lists predating the ESA. They've been endangered ever since.
Red wolves exist in only one place in the wild: on the Albemarle Peninsula of North Carolina. They were released there starting 25 years ago as part of the red wolf recovery program, which is managed by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. The peninsula is surrounded on three sides by sounds. The low-lying coastal plain is slowly sinking while sea level is rising. In the next century, up to a third of the red wolf's recovery area might be reclaimed by the ocean. Endangered red wolves will have nowhere left to run. Has the recovery program come this far only to be thwarted by climate change?
If you're not sure what a red wolf is, don't worry, you're not alone. Many people are unaware there are two species of wolves in the United States: the gray wolf and the red wolf. (On this point, don't rely on Wikipedia—while the site lists red wolves as a subspecies of gray wolf, few experts agree. It is widely referred to as its own species, Canis rufus.) Red wolves are lanky and lean, smaller than a gray wolf but larger than a coyote. To my eye, their carriage is suggestive of a well-muscled greyhound. They aren't red like a red fox is red; rather, their coloring ranges from tawny to beige with black, and a distinctive dusting of burnt umber tends to grace the backs of their ears and tumble across their shoulders. Many red wolves hold their ears at a characteristic 45-degree angle, which gives their heads the look of an inverted triangle.
Today, there are fewer than 100 wild red wolves in the reintroduction area. Another 200 or so live in captivity as part of a species survival plan administered by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. Red wolves were the first wolf species to be reintroduced in the United States—the gray wolf reintroduction project in Yellowstone National Park is better known, but it followed by eight years. In the past, red wolves ranged throughout the Southeast. They may have lived from Florida north to Pennsylvania, and west to southern Illinois and central Texas.
Red wolves will probably never have a future unmanaged by human hands. Their landscape has changed fundamentally from the one in which the species evolved. The eastern forest is now laced with human settlements, something red wolves tend to avoid. Red wolves have been shot, often because they were mistaken for coyotes.
The eastern coyote did not historically share the red wolf’s territory. Reintroduced red wolves that encounter eastern coyotes will sometimes mate with them, producing hybrid offspring. Hybridization with coyotes was the single greatest threat to the last wild red wolves of southeast Texas and southwest Louisiana in the early 1970s, when 14 red wolves were captured for breeding. When red wolves were first released to Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge on Sept. 14, 1987, coyotes were about 500 miles to the west. But today, coyotes and red wolves live side-by-side on the Albemarle Peninsula.
The threat of hybridization may appear to be the biggest roadblock to the red wolf's recovery, but climate change may be a bigger one.
In Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge, which some experts consider to be ground zero for rising seas on the East Coast, biologist Dennis Stewart has witnessed forests of pond pines retreat a mile inland over the course of two decades. Sawgrasses and marsh then filled in where trees once stood. Pond pines are exquisitely sensitive to saltwater; their needles brown and whither when sprayed with salty water during nor'easters. They die outright when their roots sit in salty sound water pushed inland from storm surges, or from gradually rising sea levels which intrude into coastal soils and groundwater. When the pond pine forests retreat, they are first replaced by small shrubs and invasive phragmites (a type of reed). As the soil becomes even saltier, these communities then morph into salt meadows and salt marshes.
What does this mean for the red wolves? Their habitat will contract. The eastern portion of the peninsula has an average elevation of a mere few feet above sea level. (Use the interactive graphic on this site to visualize what a predicted 1-meter rise or more would look like on the peninsula.)