Red Wolf Howling Safaris
Zacary, 8, was dressed for the occasion. His red T-shirt was adorned with a beautifully embroidered face of a red wolf, with lettering that shouted SAVE ME! His mother, Tricia, a professional silkscreen and embroidery printer, had made the shirt for him as part of a school project back home in Telford, Pa. "It was a project on endangered species, and he got assigned the red wolf," Tricia Hunter explained. "I'd never even heard of them being endangered. We went online for his report and learned that a lot of red wolves are in North Carolina."
So when she, Zacary, and his brother Jacob, 5, came to the Outer Banks in late June on vacation, they immediately signed up for a Red Wolf Howling Safari, a two-hour educational program on Wednesday nights in the summer and on special evenings in the fall, winter, and spring at the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge. Although visitors do not see the wolves (few people ever do), with a little luck and some human-produced howls, the wolves will howl back.
The refuge, on about 152,000 acres of forested wetland just east of Manteo and west of Columbia, is home to an abundance of wildlife, including bears, deer, otters, alligators, and at least 200 species of birds. But the most famous animal here is the red wolf, an endangered species that was declared extinct in the wild in 1980. In a reintroduction program, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service captured the few remaining red wolves to breed them in captivity and reestablish the species in the wild. The red wolf is native to the southeastern part of the United States.
Though there are now 40 spots in the country that conduct captive breeding programs, the only place in the world where red wolves roam wild is in eastern North Carolina, across 1.7 million acres in five counties. Wild, however, does not mean without human intervention. As part of the Red Wolf Recovery Program, headquartered at the Alligator River refuge, more than half the wolves wear radio transmitter collars that emit frequencies so biologists can study their movement and behavior. Scientists do aerial tracking as well. And when they trap wolves to place their collars or replace the batteries, they also inoculate them against heartworm and other diseases.
Before Zacary and Jacob went off to howl with the 100 or so other visitors, they checked out exhibits at the table staffed by Diane Hendry, Red Wolf Recovery outreach coordinator. Hendry showed them pelts from a red wolf and a coyote, which, to the untrained eye, appear quite similar. But when she held up the pelts, it's easy to see that the red wolf, which typically weighs 50 to 80 pounds and is about 4 feet long, is larger. Gray wolves are larger still. The “red” is no giveaway, as the wolves are mostly brown and buff, sometimes with a reddish color on their ears, head, and legs.
The boys next zipped over to the table staffed by Kim Wheeler, executive director of the Red Wolf Coalition, a nonprofit organization founded in 1997. With their own money, Zacary bought a Coalition hat and T-shirt and Jacob bought a T-shirt, and they both made a cash donation. The Coalition, which opened an office in Columbia last year advocates for the long-term survival of red wolf populations by running educational and public programs. The weekly Summer Howlings, which started nine years ago and fill up with more than 100 people weekly, have certainly boosted public awareness. “People would love to see us do it more than once a week,” Wheeler said. “But it gets the wolves riled up.”
At the start of each howling, Wheeler addresses the crowd from the bed of a pickup truck. "Who has seen a red wolf in the wild before?" she asked. She said she usually gets a few raised hands, and they're generally from people who have seen what turned out to be coyotes.
This time only one hand is raised, and it is, in fact, from someone who has seen several red wolves. Quent Lupton, a graduate student spending the summer in the Outer Banks guiding kayak tours, worked for six months as a Fish and Wildlife technician on St. Vincent National Wildlife Refuge in northwest Florida, the site of one of the country's two island recovery programs. There, a pair of red wolves run wild and their pups are eventually released into the population in North Carolina. "I've handled red wolves to change a collar or inoculate them, but I've never heard them howl," Lupton said. "Growing up in Beaufort County, I always heard about the red wolves here."
There are four places in the state to see red wolves in captivity – the North Carolina Zoo in Asheboro, the Western North Carolina Nature Center in Asheville, North Carolina Museum of Life and Science in Durham, and the Dan Nicholas Park in Salisbury.
It was in 1987 that the Fish and Wildlife Service released four pairs of captive-bred red solves in the Alligator River refuge, and today about 100 wolves comprising nearly 20 packs, or extended family units, roam the area. Their lifespan in the wild is only 7 to 8 years, so the population changes frequently. Biologists use what is known as a soft trap, which doesn’t cause physical injury, to catch a wolf in order to collar or inoculate it. About 75 percent of adult wolves there are collared, Wheeler said.
The biggest threats to the red wolf population are wolves breeding with coyotes (which typically happens only when they don’t have access to red wolf mates), hunters shooting wolves that they think are coyotes, and wolves being injured by vehicles.
Of course while the wolf population is being restored here, so is the ecosystem that sustains it, and that includes all kind of wildlife that Wheeler hopes people come to appreciate. The Coalition plans to eventually build an education center where some wolves can be on display and where natural resources are highlighted.
At the howling, darkness finally descends and howling time is near. Wheeler gives guests their instructions. Because the spot near the howling area is about five miles down Creek Cut Wildlife Trail (the group first meets at the intersection of Milltail Road and Highway 64), howlers will caravan to the location, usually in several dozen cars.
The howlings are located near the Sandy Ridge holding facility, where usually less than a dozen wolves are being held for a number of reasons, such as recuperation from an injury, in transition to or from a captive facility, or for genetic testing. The animals that howl back at the humans could be these wolves or could be members of area packs.
Once everyone gathered, Wheeler walked ahead of the group, because she alone starts initial contact. Hendry, meanwhile, rounded up the couple dozen children and had them practice their technique silently. "Cup your hands and raise your head," she said, and they do, taking their instructions seriously and not making a sound.
On this night, Wheeler's howling skills are put to the test. She starts with one long "Ah-rooooooooo," followed by a shorter one, and then a longer one again. Nothing. The group, about a football field away, listens intently while quietly swatting away mosquitoes. Meanwhile, crickets, bullfrogs, and occasional airplanes fill the skies with noise.
Wheeler repeated her trio of howls, and, finally, in the distance, there were some garbled yelps and perhaps a howl. Wheelers returned to the crowd, asking Hendry, "Did they hear anything?" No one is quite sure.
Now, finally, the kids get their chance, followed by 80 or so howling adults. Surprisingly, from a different direction than Wheeler had been facing, came several lone howls, loud and clear. Relief replaced anxiety on howlers’ faces. Their mission had been accomplished. Lupton, the former Fish and Wildlife technician who had handled red wolves but never heard one, was pleased. "It was just wonderful to hear," he reported. "Now I've had the whole package."
And of course the ending couldn't have been sweeter for the beaming Hunter boys. Zacary was looking forward to telling his former classmates about his chat with the wolves, and said he planned to become a card-carrying member of the Red Wolf Coalition."Zacary told me at the howling that it was one of the best days of his life,” his mother reported. That night when I tucked him into bed, he had a smile from ear to ear."
Many Red Wolf Howling Safaris are free and some are $5 per person. Registration is required. Call the Red Wolf Coalition at 252.796.5600 or registering online at www.redwolves.com. Programs typically last two hours and will occur unless there is lightning, heavy wind or rain, or impassable road conditions. Participants should wear long sleeves and pants, and bring a flashlight and insect repellent. The group meets at Creek Cut Wildlife Trail at the intersection of Milltail Road and Highway 64, about 15 minutes west of Manteo.
by Diane Daniel
added: July 24, 2009
updated: July 31, 2009
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