ASHEVILLE, N.C. — Red wolves roam the Albemarle Peninsula of eastern North Carolina, and a new study confirms that the wild population is a unique, genetically distinct species.
The findings could halt a years-long debate on whether these endangered wolves should be protected. Ben Prater is director of the southeast program at the conservation organization Defenders of Wildlife.
"That question of whether or not red wolves were a true species and therefore should be protected under the Endangered Species Act has been a target, has been, again, something that has been used politically to motivate antipathy towards this animal and towards the program to recover it,” Prater said.
As part of recent appropriations bills, Congress directed the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to investigate the animals' genetic origins. The study, published by the National Academy of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, found evidence that the red wolf is a unique species genetically separate from gray wolves and coyotes.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recently has taken steps to strip protections for red wolves in the wild. Prater said the new study cements the red wolf's status as a species worthy of protection.
"So now, we believe that not only do conservationists and advocates for the recovery of the world's most endangered wolf, but also the agency itself - the Fish and Wildlife Service - trusted with its protection, now has solid scientific footing to stand on, to say yes, this is a valid species and we must do what we need to do now to ensure that it is conserved and recovered in the wild,” he said.
Historically found in North Carolina and other parts of the Southeast, red wolves are nearly extinct, but a small wild population of about 30 wolves live on the Albemarle Peninsula. Scientists are working to boost the wild population.
Heather Clarkson, outreach representative with Defenders of Wildlife, said there currently are more than 200 red wolves in captivity around the country as part of a species survival program.
"And so those wolves are used to be bred in captivity,” Clarkson said. “The point of those wolves is to use them and their genetics to augment the wild population through live releases. "
Clarkson said hunting is a threat to the survival of the wild population, as red wolves often are mistaken for coyotes.