Saving red wolves would help us all

Published 7:20 am Friday, June 3, 2016

This week, the New York Times reported that environmentalists need emergency protection for red wolves.

There are only 45 to 60 red wolves left in the wild, and an upgrade in protection would increase the penalties for harming the wolves, and set aside land for their habitat. It would also mean the Department of Fish and Wildlife would introduce red wolves to other areas in the Southeast, including, according to the Times, “in swampy areas in Alabama, Kentucky and other Southern states.”

At present, only one small group lives in North Carolina, though others live in artificial habitats.

The red wolf once roamed as far north as Pennsylvania and as far west as central Texas, but extensive eradication programs in the 1960s wiped out most of the wolves. By 1980, they were declared extinct in the wild. For the life of me, I don’t know why people began purging the wolves. The New York Times doesn’t say, and online research sites offer little information. The Times does point out, however ironically, the wolves have never posed any danger to humans or livestock. They’re smaller than gray wolves — they’re sometimes mistaken for coyotes — and the Times reports they eat mainly small rodents like rabbits and nutria.

But, given their wide ranging habitats and their appetite for small mammals, their sudden extinction in the wild must have been as widespread as it was consistent.

Southerners have shown remarkable facility in wholesale exterminations. Hunting and habitat loss have wiped out, among many other species, the ivory-billed woodpecker and the jaguar and they have seriously threatened the black bear — especially in Mississippi — and the Florida panther.

The red wolf is extra special, however, because it is the only species of wolf exclusive to North America. By contrast, the gray wolf, which is doing quite well for itself, lives across the northern hemisphere.

But beyond mere sentimentality, I’ve always felt that conservation, when it is practical and available, should be the goal of any reasonable person because the healthier the native wildlife in a region, the better quality its environment. We didn’t realize until it was too late that channeling the Mississippi River and controlling its natural flooding would disturb the equilibrium along the coast, to the extent that our coast is washing away and with it our best protection against salt water and hurricanes.

Critics opposed to increased protection for the red wolf point out that increased protections come with land use restrictions and they fear those could affect private land use. That’s a fair point.

Ideally, if the wolves are reintroduced, it will be with the cooperation of state and local governments, but regardless, land restriction fears alone shouldn’t prevent expanding protection for red wolves. Ideally, federal funding could be set aside to protect the species and some land. In a perfect world, Louisiana could get some of that funding.

And yes, whatever state reintroduces the wolves will need to set aside some protected land for them. But as we have learned in Louisiana, protecting the land can mean protecting ourselves.

Jesse Wright is the managing editor at The Daily News. You can email him at or call him at 985-732-2565, ext. 301.