Time running out for red wolf

Published 12:34 am Monday, September 5, 2016

By Hannah Davis

Center for the Environment

There once was a time when the nightly routine of owl hoots and cricket chirps were mixed in with the presence of the raspy howl of a pack of red wolves, but now the howls have almost gone silent. In fact, the forests off of the east coast of North Carolina are the only habitat where you can still hear a wild red wolf’s call.

The Center for the Environment at Catawba College kicked off the new school year with its first event on Sept. 1. The event showcased three advocates for the red wolf and a documentary reiterating the struggle that red wolves face. The three advocates were Christian Hunt, an associate for the Defenders of Wildlife nonprofit group; Ben Prater, also a member of Defenders of Wildlife and an alumnus of the Catawba College Environmental Science Program; and Ben Zino, a junior at West Rowan High School who created a red wolf recovery petition that received over 100,000 signatures.

But what really is a red wolf anyway? And why does it need protecting? Well, Christian Hunt answered that by saying “when you think of an endangered species, you probably think about pandas, polar bears or tigers, and while those animals all do need protection, they would be considered an affluent population in comparison to the red wolf,” another endangered species. For instance, there are over 4,000 wild tigers currently in existence, but only around 60 wild red wolves.

This is mostly due to the fact that people’s perception of a wolf is usually pretty bad. Hunt explains this by telling the audience to think about the childhood stories of “The Three Little Pigs” or “Red Riding Hood” where the wolf is portrayed as being the mean, scary bad guy. When in reality, red wolves are actually one of the most shy and gentle species of Canid out there.

Hunt believes that one of the biggest problems for red wolves is that they are often mistaken for their less-agreeable cousin – the coyote. However, unlike coyotes, red wolves tend to only go after sick and injured deer or small creatures like opossums when desperate. Coyotes, on the other hand, tend to eat whatever suits their fancy and are well adaptable to an omnivorous diet if needed.

“It is important to note that despite the small number of red wolves, they play a vital role in the ecosystem that they inhabit,” says Hunt. This is where something called the Trophic Cascade begins to take place. The Trophic Cascade happens to an ecosystem when the loss of one species makes a dramatic effect on another species in the ecosystem, and where everything is basically thrown off balance because of the one loss.

For instance, when the red wolf packs are strong, they keep the populations of coyotes and white-tailed deer down. This helps farmers keep their livestock away from the coyotes and their gardens free from being eaten by the deer. Also, in keeping the deer population down, the forests where the deer roam become healthier and more abundant. This is because the deer will eat less of the plant life out of fear of being caught.

High school student Ben Zino wrapped up the night by telling the audience that “the best thing you can do is get the word out.” A lot of people simply don’t know about this creature or its plight and the red wolf “is currently unique to our forests and should be something that we are proud of.”