Kevin Seabrook

(Rock Hill, S.C.) — There are only about 20 red wolves known to be left in the wild in the Carolinas and a number of groups are working to save the animals from extinction.

Red wolves, which are native to the Carolinas, are a cousin of the grey wolf, which have similar features. Their red color and smaller body frames are the main things that distinguish them from grey wolves.

According to National Geographic, there are 6,000 grey wolves in the wild, which is a huge difference from the 20 known red wolves.

Experts say red and grey wolves have been on the decline since the 1800s due to hunting and trapping, but the red wolves have been the hardest hit.

“North Carolina has the only wild population (of red wolves) in the world,” said Kim Wheeler, executive director of the Red Wolf Coalition, based in Columbia, N.C.

“Just to give you an idea, right now we have 10 known collared (red) wolves. When I started with the coalition in 2005, we had 130 animals on the landscape here in the five counties (of eastern North Carolina),” said Wheeler.

Over the last 15 years, the red wolf population has dropped from about 130 to roughly 20, with about half of them collared for tracking.

Wheeler said the biggest obstacle for her team is working with local land owners, because 65 percent of the 1.7 million acres of eastern North Carolina where the wolves live is private property.

“They (the wolves) lost most, if not all of their land owner support. A red wolf born in the spring, by the time it’s hunting season, they’re sometimes about the size of a coyote. There’s open season on coyotes every day; you can shoot them any day of the week, because they’re considered a nuisance,” said Wheeler.

“What I find interesting is, it’s not so much hunters…it’s local (residents) that all of a sudden feel like their rights, their land-owner rights, have been violated. They feel like having these wolves on their landscape and not being able to shoot is a violation of their rights.”

Catherine Kozak, an environmental journalist for the Coastal Review, said she thinks hunting has led to the decline of the species.

“When I first wrote about the red wolves, they were doing great. I think I first wrote about them in the 1990s. A few years later, this crisis developed where their population started crashing,” said Kozak.

“They had a pretty large range, but then…they started being hunted; wolves did not do well with hunters and that’s why they were mostly wiped out.”

Earlier this year, a federal judge ruled that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service had to again start releasing red wolves — bred in captivity at the St. Vincent National Wildlife Refuge in Florida — into the wild in North Carolina, which it had stopped doing in 2015.

The wildlife service stopped releasing the red wolves, due to concerns that too many of the animals were being killed by hunters, vehicles or poisoning, and opportunistic coyotes were breeding with the wolves.

However, the judge’s ruling comes after a lawsuit was filed on behalf of three non-profit groups, including the Red Wolf Coalition, which argued the move could ultimately lead to the extinction of the red wolf.

In the meantime, a number of groups, including the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission, have been working to educate the public about the plight of the red wolf, with the hope of conveying their importance to landowners in the area.

Kelsey Rumley, special programs coordinator for the Endangered Wolf Center, said red wolves could be a key factor to improving the environment.

“Red wolves have the potential to alleviate ecological pests like feral hogs and coyotes that may damage farmland. They are a keystone species much like the grey wolves in Yellowstone (National Park),” said Rumley.