One of the more elusive things to see in the wild is a wolf. I saw my first one in Yellowstone some years ago, and have been fortunate enough to see several out west since. But my recent travel has been focused locally in the east, so I didn’t expect to go looking for more wolves any time soon.
All of that changed while scoping out a recent trip to North Carolina, which is home to the world’s few remaining red wolves (canus rufus). How they came to be there is a bit of a story, and one that is thankfully still being written.
A hundred or so years ago, red wolves were found in large numbers in the marshes and prairies all across the Southeast. But by the mid-1900s, their fortunes had changed–through a combination of habitat loss, hunting pressure, and interbreeding with coyotes. With dramatically declining numbers, the red wolf was declared endangered in 1967, and extinct in 1980. At that point, only a very small number (just 14) remained, all of them in captivity.
At the time, wolf reintroduction was somewhat of a new thing, but biologists knew there was good habitat along the North Carolina coast. So in 1987—almost ten years ahead of the releases in Yellowstone—four pairs of captive wolves were introduced into the marshes of Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge.
The reaction from residents was…um…mixed, but the wolves initially did quite well–expanding their population to about 130 in the late 2000s. Then something changed for the worse, and there are now less than 20. There’s debate about the cause of the decline, with most biologists pointing to some combination of interbreeding with coyotes and “human-caused mortality”—which is a fancy term for things like gunshots and vehicle strikes. It’s tough out there.
With the chance for a wolf sighting, I decided to visit Alligator River as well as nearby Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge. I knew the odds of seeing one were slim (some locals shared that they’d not seen a wolf in their lifetime), but that seemed almost beside the point. After all, “you never know when or where one will appear,” as a ranger told me, and there was intrigue in just the possibility. So I headed off with my binoculars and my mountain bike, first to Pocosin Lakes and then to Alligator River the next day.
At Pocosin Lakes, I biked and hiked about 15 miles on mostly muddy roads, scanning the woods as much as I could along the way. It was a challenging ride, but the harder stretches were fueled by energy from anticipation. The next day, Souzz joined me and we biked together through the Alligator River Refuge, again with at least one eye trained in the woods. These areas are mostly marshes, without grand vistas or much relief, but they are under-visited for what they offer–including tons of bird life, beautiful lowlands, and a lot of solitude (because they are under-visited!).
Well…we didn’t see any wolves. But there was still plenty to catch our attention–including tundra swans, snow geese, hawks, bald eagles, great blue herons, a turtle, and two fat water snakes. You see more when you are looking (obviously), and even just the chance to spot what is seldom seen felt worthy of the chase. We are thankful that the red wolf is hanging on and creating that opportunity, and we made a modest donation to the Coastal Wildlife Refuge Society to support the cause.
These are complicated times, for sure, but there was a refreshing simplicity about our little quest. As we bumped our way down those roads, each of us sensed that we were on the verge of something. As illogical as it sounds, we felt a wave of optimism—for a new place, a new discovery, or maybe just a new day. We may not have succeeded in finding what we were looking for, but we definitely found what we needed.