Used under Creative Commons License. Photo by Jim Liestman

Used under Creative Commons License. Photo by Jim Liestman.

In the story, three pigs build houses to protect themselves against the wolf.

The first two pigs build their houses from straw and wood, which the wolf blows over and he eats the two pigs. But the third pig builds his house out of brick, which the wolf cannot blow over.

Our society has accepted the implications of this fairy tale. We build whole villages of brick and concrete, and cities of steel, walling ourselves off from the unpredictable wilderness our species lived in for millennia. The ancient antagonists of early Americans—mountain lions, bears, and wolves— have receded into our few undeveloped badlands, or our storybooks.

But are there any downsides to living in a world without large predators? A world cut off from the last traces of the life we left behind? A world without wolf howls?

At least some people seem to think so. Twenty-seven years ago a project headed by the Fish and Wildlife Service re-introduced a large predator—the red wolf— into a section of its former range, in eastern North Carolina. It was the first project of its kind, and some have hailed the re-introduction program as a success. But others see the program as a waste of resources, which has resulted in an investigation into whether the FWS should continue with the program.

Smaller than its northerly cousin the gray wolf but larger than a coyote, red wolves were once widespread throughout the eastern U.S. But due to a combination of hunting and habitat loss, by the early 1900s the species was restricted to a swath of marsh in southern Louisiana and Texas, becoming the rarest wolf species in the world.

That’s when conservationists took all the red wolves left in the wild and moved them into captive breeding programs in zoos. The wolves eventually bred in the zoos and their captive numbers grew throughout the mid-1900s.

Then in 1987 the FWS decided to release four male-female pairs into Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge in far eastern North Carolina for the express purpose of starting a new wild wolf population. Despite the small number of released individuals, the population persisted, and by the mid-2000s it had grown to more than 100 wolves.

But around 2007 the program started seeing a decline in wolf-population growth. The reason? Coyotes.

Smaller than wolves and more solitary, coyotes have benefited from the contraction of wolf ranges across North America. Once confined to Mexico and western Canada and the U.S., coyotes are now common across most of the continent. They are also the species responsible for the most livestock predations in the United States.

For these reasons, states across the country have opened up hunting for coyotes. For the red wolf, which competes with coyotes and sometimes mates with them (polluting the already small red wolf bloodline) this would seem like a good thing.

But this hasn’t been the case.

The problem is that it’s hard to distinguish between a large coyote and a small red wolf. So hunters in the five-county re-introduction area were shooting red wolves when they thought they were shooting coyotes.

A lawsuit was filed against the NC Wildlife Resources Commission, the organization that sets hunting regulations in the state, after the FWS reported that gunshot wounds were the leading cause of red wolf mortality. This eventually led to the adoption of a new set of laws in the re-introduction zone.

The new stipulations—no night hunting and no hunting without a special coyote permit—carry with them a strict verdict. If two or more red wolves are shot in the same year on state game lands by hunters with coyote permits, then coyote hunting across wolf territory will be suspended.

But coming on the heels of this legislation in support of the red wolves was a different kind of ruling. The NC Wildlife Resource Commission mandated that the Fish and Wildlife Service re-evaluate its 27-year-old red wolf recovery program in Alligator River.

The FWS obliged, and earlier this year it hired an independent agency, the Wildlife Management Institute, to review the program.

The Institute’s report, which was published in mid-November, found a number of problems with the re-introduction program.

One problem was the program’s lack of community support.

According to the document, “inadequate public awareness and support efforts have led to an atmosphere of distrust within some segments of the community.”

Joseph Hinton is a post-doc at the University of Georgia who has researched the reintroduced red wolves for the last 10 years. In his experience, locals are generally unconcerned about the red wolf program.

“Most landowners are indifferent to recovery efforts. Much of my research over the past 10 years was conducted on private land in which I interacted with landowners and had access to their property,” Dr. Hinton said. “[The program] has been able to work the past 25 years with private landowners out there. That’s how they’ve been able to move the population out from Alligator River and into neighboring counties.”

T. Delene Beeland, a science writer who published the seminal book on red wolf conservation history, points out that the re-introduction area has one of the densest populations of black bear east of the Mississippi River. This, in addition to the presence of animals like alligators and bobcats, means that a lot of land owners are accustomed to living with large predators.

But for others, having wolves on one’s property remains controversial.

Jett Ferebee owns 2000 acres of land in Tyrell County, in the heart of the re-introduction area.

The land, which literally shares a border with the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge, has become home to the largest wolf pack in the entire red wolf program. His main issue with the program is that they haven’t removed the wolves from his property.

“They used to say, ‘Well, we don’t have to remove them, and even if we removed them they’ll just come back,’” Ferebee said. “Well, that isn’t what they promised.”

The promise Ferebee is referring to is a provision in the Fish and Wildlife Service’s 1995 Rules Revision for the red wolf program. The provision grants landowners in the recovery area the ability to have unwanted wolves removed from their property and placed back on refuge lands.

Beeland said this was a mistake on the part of the FWS.  “I do believe that landowners should have some degree of flexibility in requesting for wolves to be removed if they are causing specific nuisance issues. But by relegating releases of captured wolves only to refuge lands, the rule ignores the biology of wolves, that they set up home territories and become bonded to certain areas of the landscape,” she said. “That rule never should have been created.”

In addition, large areas of private property separate the government land designated to be part of the re-introduction program. This means that it would have been nearly impossible to keep the wolves solely on federal and state land as their population grew.

She adds that even if the FWS did remove the unwanted wolves to federal lands permanently, coyotes would simply take their place.

But for Ferebee, this isn’t helpful. “I’m a black-and-white kind of guy,” he said. “And they didn’t obey the law.” He owns the property, and he wants the wolves removed as he was promised.

Ferebee is also concerned about the effect the wolves may be having on his game animals. He has seen the deer and rabbit populations on his property plummet in recent years, so much so that he now leaves the prime hunting land he bought in 1997 to hunt elsewhere.

Dr. Peter White, a conservation biologist at UNC-Chapel Hill points out that the game species declines may be due to something called the “ecology of fear.” This is the phenomenon where prey animals appear to become rare in the presence of large predator populations simply because they become more cautious and secretive in order to avoid the predator.

Dr. White is quick to point out, however, that without a detailed scientific study it is impossible to know exactly what is causing the apparent decline in animals on Ferebee’s farm.

It could be due to behavior changes, or overhunting by any of the predators on the property, including wolves, coyotes, or people.

Besides the issues with landowners, the Wildlife Management Institute report was concerned over the management of coyote-wolf interbreeding, known as hybridization.

So far, one of the main efforts to curb hybridization has been to sterilize coyotes in territories surrounding the red wolves. Because these coyotes continue to hold territory and keep non-sterilized coyotes away from the interior wolf population, this has been called the “placeholder strategy.”

There is also a more direct method to dealing with hybridization. According to Beeland, if the FWS finds a litter of puppies that contains hybrid DNA, then researchers will remove the puppies from the den and euthanize them.

Even so, the report calls the hybridization issue the “dominant ecological challenge to red wolf recovery.” It also points out that “regardless of the effectiveness of the placeholder strategy, the high cost and indefinite duration over which it may be necessary to apply the strategy raise serious questions regarding the value of continuing this approach.”

So will the FWS continue to support the recovery program — even though it will remain “conservation reliant,” as the report puts it — at least in the near future?

The FWS is due to release its decision as to what they will do with the program in light of the Institute’s report, in early 2015.

Will they keep the program as is? Change how the program is handled? Dismantle it altogether?

With coyote hybridization posing an eternal threat to red wolf recovery, and the problems that go along with having wolves on private property, is this all just a waste of time and money? All this just to bring back a wolf?

Everyone interviewed for this story had the opportunity to answer a question: What do we get from red wolf howls once again whistling through North Carolina forests?

Dr. Hinton tries not to get too sentimental about it. “For me, honestly, wolf howls are just a result of a healthy, growing population of wolves, and to me that’s what matters the most,” he said. As long as we can maintain a healthy population, we’ve got wolf howls. And so that’s where wolf howls help me.”

Dr. White, the conservation biologist, hasn’t heard a wolf howl personally, but he does see the worth in intact ecosystems. “I suppose you could say that I value large expanses of wilderness and the sounds that go along with that,” White said.

Mr. Ferebee has mixed feelings. “You know, the first time I heard it I thought it was kinda neat. And then it’s grown to signify we’re not a nation of rights anymore. I hear them, and you know I’ve got two males on my farm right now and both of them are clearly on my land and both of them aren’t supposed to be on my land.” He hears the howls and asks himself, “What’s wrong with this picture?”

Kim Wheeler, executive director of the Red Wolf Coalition, loves hearing red wolves howl. “It is hard to imagine that their voices might have been silenced if it had not been for the dedicated individuals who worked so hard for their survival and continue to work to give them the future they deserve,” she said.

Beeland heard captive wolves howl while in Alligator River. “They add another dimension to the woods and the wild lands of our state. Their chorus is a living memory of the fauna that were once widespread here,” she said.

The FWS now has the task of sorting through all these opinions on the red wolf program, and will issue its decision in the coming months. What will it decide to do? Will wild red wolf howls once again be silenced? Or will the moon keep the conversation going with its old friend?