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LBL Wildlife Report: Red Wolf Puppies Recently Celebrated First Birthday

The pack of red wolf puppies at the Land Between the Lakes Woodlands Nature Station recently celebrated their first birthday.
Woodlands Nature Station
The pack of red wolf puppies at the Land Between the Lakes Woodlands Nature Station recently celebrated their first birthday.

In the next installment of Sounds Good's Land Between the Lakes Wildlife Report segment, Tracy Ross and lead naturalist John Pollpeter discuss the recent birthday of the red wolf puppies currently in captivity at the Nature Station. Red wolves are one of the most critically endangered species in the world, and Land Between the Lakes currently holds around three percent of the species' global population. Reaching the one-year mark, Pollpeter says, is a huge accomplishment.

"We're the only red wolf place in Kentucky," Pollpeter begins. "There's only about 20 to 30 in the wild. It's a species that is significant to the Southeast United States because it's found nowhere else in the world. We call that endemic. When a species is endemic, it's very uniquely adapted to living in a particular environment. For us, these animals are adaptive for living from Kentucky to Florida, from Virginia to Texas. But a lot of species, as European settlement came across the south, start disappearing. They brought their European biases that wolves are bad, so they pretty much disappeared."

"90 to 95 percent of all red wolves are in captivity right now," he continues. "There are only two places you'll find them in the wild. One is Alligator River Wildlife Refuge, which is near the Outer Banks of North Carolina, and that holds about 20 red wolves or os. And then there's a small island off the coast of Florida named St. Vincent's Island that has a couple of packs on it as well, but that's it. This is an animal that used to range all throughout the Southeast and nowhere else in the world. It's uniquely American. The gray wolf, which is what most people are familiar with, is found all throughout the northern hemisphere. But the red wolf was uniquely southern, uniquely American."

Pollpeter says that while the species' population is still notably small, he believes it will continue to grow with more preservation efforts. "The Association of Zoos and Aquariums has designated them a safe species, which is saving animals from extinction, which means they're making an effort because of the difficulties red wolves have with competition with people and coyotes. They're going to try to keep them around forever, and they've increased the amount of funding that goes to being able to breed them in captivity; they're constantly looking for new places to release them into the wild. There are some big efforts to get these guys out, but it is not an easy one. It is an easy one as far as how adorable and charismatic they are and the ability for them to breed in captivity, but it's not an easy one because of the low genetics and complications of reintroduction."

"The red wolf has two problems with their genetics. One, in 1975, there were literally only 14 red wolves in the world. They were all captured. We're working with the genetics of about 12 to 14 animals. That puts a lot of complications on things. As far as interbreeding with coyotes, that's probably one of the more difficult things. Coyotes were not native to the Southeast, and when the red wolf disappeared, and the Eastern cougar and the American black bear got reduced, coyotes were able to move into the Southeast and basically take over as the top predator."

"Coyotes and red wolves are very closely related," Pollpeter continues. "Coyotes are a little more adaptable to humans than red wolves are, so their numbers can be higher. When you reintroduce a red wolf into the wild, like they did in the Outer Banks or the Smokies — the Smokies was unsuccessful — the juvenile male or female red wolf would then look for a mate, but it can't find another red wolf, so it'll find a coyote and then mate with them. That's the problem. You have a hybrid species that makes it very difficult to bring a critically endangered species like the red wolf back."

Pollpeter says that the next step in the red wolves' lives following their first birthday is distribution to other facilities. "After 18 months, we may keep a few; we may distribute a few to other facilities. Most likely, the ones w have here at the Nature Station will continue to be in the zoo circuit. The reason is they're exhibit wolves, which means they're constantly seeing people, and it's difficult for them to separate that people bring food or we catch our own food. Most likely, ours are going to go to another facility like the St. Louis Zoo, for instance, or somewhere in Tennessee. It's doubtful, but not impossible that they would be released in the wild in North Carolina just because of their current status. The good thing for them is they are genetically valuable, and our wolves are big. That makes them more successful. Their large size makes them less likely that they'll be influenced by coyotes."

Before the red wolves are transferred following their 18-month milestone, Pollpeter says now is a particularly good time to catch a glimpse of the puppies at the Nature Station. "They're becoming a little bit more bold, so people have a better chance of seeing them when they come. The key is for people to be quiet, maybe come in the very beginning of the morning toward 10 when we open or 4 when we close. Try to avoid coming when we have a school group because, obviously, all that noise is going to scare them. But if you want to see them interacting with each other, big puppy piles, tugging on dad's ear, or annoying mom, you should come out to Land Between the Lakes and see them."

Read more LBL Wildlife Reports here. For more information on the Woodlands Nature Station and Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area, visit its website.

Tracy started working for WKMS in 1994 while attending Murray State University. After receiving his Bachelors and Masters degrees from MSU he was hired as Operations/Web/Sports Director in 2000. Tracy hosted All Things Considered from 2004-2012 and has served as host/producer of several music shows including Cafe Jazz, and Jazz Horizons. In 2001, Tracy revived Beyond The Edge, a legacy alternative music program that had been on hiatus for several years. Tracy was named Program Director in 2011 and created the midday music and conversation program Sounds Good in 2012 which he hosts Monday-Thursday. Tracy lives in Murray with his wife, son and daughter.
Melanie Davis-McAfee graduated from Murray State University in 2018 with a BA in Music Business. She has been working for WKMS as a Music and Operations Assistant since 2017. Melanie hosts the late-night alternative show Alien Lanes, Fridays at 11 pm with co-host Tim Peyton. She also produces Rick Nance's Kitchen Sink and Datebook and writes Sounds Good stories for the web.
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