There were great hopes for the red wolf program in the Great Smoky Mountains. Now, biologists are figuring out what went wrong.
The wolves are gone from Cade's Cove. There was a time a year or two ago when a wanderer in the Great Smoky Mountains' most visited valley might have seen them: a flash of red and brown tracing deer scent through the high grass. They liked it there in the flat meadows, for the same reason tourists like iteasy terrain, diverse flora, plentiful wildlife.
"Unfortunately," says Chris Lucash, who knew the Smoky Mountain wolves better than anyone, "there was only one Cade's Cove in that park."
The effort to build a red wolf population in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park was a failure, destined to be a footnote in the park's history. But it was an ambitious failure and, like all such enterprises, an educational one. If 10 or 20 years from now the endangered canines with the alert brown eyes and soft white muzzles have successfully found new natural ranges, it will be partly thanks to the lessons learned in the Southern Appalachians.
"If you learn by your mistakes, I should've learned a lot, because I probably made a lot," says Lucash, a biologist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Red Wolf Project who oversaw the Smoky Mountains effort.
Red Wolves once roamed most of the Southeastern United States, from Maryland to Texas. Smaller and leaner than the Western gray wolf, they average about five feet in length and 60 to 70 pounds for adult males. Their "redness" is somewhat deceptive, mostly confined to the fur on their brow and ears; they're largely brown with white bellies. They're known to interbreed with coyotes, and some biologists speculate the species itself might have started as a coyote-gray wolf hybrid.
Reclusive and solitary, red wolves had almost disappeared before anyone thought to look for them. After the federal government put a bounty on wolves in 1907 to help protect ranchers' livestock, wild canids of all types were hunted nearly to extinction within 30 years. When Congress passed the Endangered Species Act in 1973, a survey of U.S. wolf populations turned up scant results.
"By the time we realized [red wolves] were in trouble, there were very few left," says Gary Henry, Lucash's boss and the red wolf coordinator for the Fish and Wildlife Service. "We went to the last natural habitat area, which was in Texas and western Louisiana. There was very little biological information to go on."
With their own species depleted, the wolves had bred extensively with coyotes. Scientists developed a set of "morphological standards" to identify pure red wolves. Out of an initial population of 400 candidates captured, only 43 met the standards. Of those, just 14 were positively identified as red wolvesthe last 14 of their kind.
With that population as a starting point, the Wildlife Service began breeding the animals in captivity and looking for ways to bring them back in the wild. The nationwide recovery plan calls for establishing at least three separate populations in the East and Southeast, totaling 220 wild red wolves. Although reintroduction efforts have since succeeded with a number of species, Henry says the red wolf program was the first such attempt"Nobody had ever pulled it off."
In addition to preserving the species for its own sake, Henry says a healthy red wolf population would help curtail the overpopulation of deer, raccoons, and a host of rodents that have mushroomed in the absence of predators. It would also slow the expansion of coyotes, which have moved east to fill the wolf's old niche but bring a host of problems of their own.
The initial site chosen as a red wolf launch was Land Between the Lakes on the Kentucky-Tennessee border. But once word of the plans got out, local residents protested. That was the Wildlife Service's first reintroduction lesson.
As the biologists discovered, centuries of stories about wolves killing cattle and carrying off children in the middle of the night still resonate. No one wanted the animals in their backyards. So the focus turned to a large tract of federal land in northeast North Carolina, in the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge. In 1987, the Wildlife Service released its first red wolves there. They flourished.
"We had almost immediate success," Henry says. "We had second-generation young, animals that were born in the wild and survived, that had their own pups within four years."
Flush with that vindication, the Service next looked for another federal preserve that would provide a similar habitat. The Tennessee side of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park seemed like a natural choice.
"I thought wolves basically would make it anywhere," Henry admits. "We knew the Southern Appalachians did not have as large a prey base as other areas. But we thought what they would do is expand their range to make up for that. Which is exactly what they did."
However, the ramifications of that expansion wouldn't become clear for several years.
Mindful of the large (and growing) human population that butts against the park, the federal scientists first undertook a massive education campaign. They explained the wolves posed no threat to humans. They also promised to monitor the population and keep it confined to public lands. So when it finally came time in 1991 to release the first wolvesa mated pair and two pupsinterest and support from the general public were high. Some early indications were good; the female wolves did bear litters, and one group of wolves managed to take down a wild boar, an invasive species with no natural predator in the Smokies. By the end of 1992, there were a total of 12 red wolves in the park.
But, says Lucash, the problems soon became apparent. Wolves released at high altitudesone release site was about 1,000 yards up from the Tremont areaall tended to gravitate downhill. Biologists believe the migration was mostly a matter of food supply; although there are deer and smaller mammals in the mountains, there are more of them in the valleys.
In fact, there's no way to know whether red wolves ever spent much time in the mountains. National Park Service spokeswoman Nancy Gray says the last documented wild wolf sighting in Tennessee was in 1901, in Haywood County. In any event, Lucash says, the released wolves tended to either settle in Cade's Cove or wander onto private property. In the latter cases, federal agents tracked the animals by their radio collars, captured them, and returned them to the park. It was a losing battle; animals who went outside park bounds repeatedly had to be removed, either to the North Carolina refuge or back into captivity.
Six of the escapees weren't so lucky. Lucash recounts each of them with audible regret. Two were shot: in one case, a female wolf was trying to break into a dog breeding pen; in the other, a farmer shot the wolf from about 200 yards away. One was hit by a car. Two died of antifreeze poisoning, a commonand, Lucash adds, torturousway for farmers to fend off predators. The sixth died of unknown causes.
There was a bigger problem, too. Although cubs were born in the Smokies each year of the programa total of eight litters between 1991 and 1998not one of them survived to maturity. Scientists speculate the adult animals were having to roam so far afield to find prey that they weren't able to also care for their young.
"We caught some pups, but when we would catch them, they'd only be about half the weight they should be for their age," Henry says.
By last fall, the Wildlife Service had released a total of 39 wolves into the Smoky Mountains. Most of them had already been recaptured and returned to other areas. In October, officials decided to cancel the project altogether, removing the remaining animals. The total cost of the program over the seven years was about $1.2 million.
"One of the things I think we learned was to be a lot more thoughtful and aware of the complexities in choosing a site," says Lucash, who's now based at Alligator River.
Henry says the Wildlife Service is considering about 30 other possible release areas, but it hasn't identified any yet. Any site will have to have a minimum of 170,000 acres of public land. "Based on our experience in the Smokies, now we've got a base of information we can use to hopefully help us select other areas," he says.
There is a postscript to the story, although it's one the federal officials are careful to downplay. In the course of the red wolf program, three of the adult animals went astray. One didn't have a radio collar (a black bear knocked over her pen before she was tagged), and the signals from the other two vanished at different points. While Lucash emphasizes the animals are almost certainly deadthere have been no sightingshe says there's no way to know for sure.
"There's a possibility there's some still out there," he says. "You cannot guarantee anything with wildlife."