By Marion Blackburn
COLUMBIA, N.C. — By 1986, Red Wolves were virtually extinct in the wild, their numbers reduced to about 20 by hunting, development and interbreeding with coyotes.
Today, they again roam the forests of Eastern North Carolina — the only place in the world these wolves are found.
The Red Wolf Coalition in Columbia, N.C., hopes to assure survival of these animals, which once populated the Southeast and are distinct from — though related to — gray wolves.
The agency hosts monthly “Howlings” at the Alligator National Wildlife Refuge when visitors can listen for the animals with a guide.
It also holds education programs, helps foster public understanding and provides learning programs for schools.
“We see more than 1500 people a year for our Howlings,” says Kim Wheeler, the coalition’s executive director. “We see people from all over.”
The Red Wolf Coalition was founded 10 years ago by a biologist involved with the “reintroduction” of wildlife into natural areas.
Four wolves were brought to the refuge in 1986 by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as a hopeful experiment.
Slowly, the wolves bred and their numbers climbed: About 100 now live in the recovery area of Beaufort, Dare, Hyde, Tyrrell and Washington counties.
The coalition hopes to help area residents and farmers appreciate the wolves’ contributions.
Their plight has become more visible recently because of the Navy’s plan to build an outlying jet landing field, known as the OLF, in the recovery area.
The wolves are a hit with people around the world, says Cornelia “Neil” Hutt of Virginia, a long-time volunteer and board chairman.
“They have bad table manners, they hang out in gangs,” she says. “Children love to read about them and learn about them. They are fascinating. They resonate with people.”
The once-small coalition is seeing steady growth, she says.
In the past year, the organization has rented an office, hired an executive director and made plans for a new exhibit. It hopes to hire an assistant next year.
“It was a struggle in the beginning, but this organization has taken off,” Hutt says. “We have national exposure. We’re beefing up our board. We are connected to the International Wolf Center in Minnesota.”
In November, a fall fundraiser began with a goal of $20,000, up from $15,000 raised a year earlier and over $11,000 raised last spring.
Two other efforts are underway. The group has already raised half of the $10,000 needed to bring a wolf exhibit to Columbia next May, in time for tourists heading to the Outer Banks.
And the coalition has asked U.S. Rep. Walter B. Jones, who represents the area, to support enlarging the visitor center to serve as a Red Wolf education center, a project that could cost $2 million.
In the future, Wheeler says, the coalition hopes to build a separate Red Wolf education center, with an enclosed area where visitors can see captive red wolves.
Plans are also ahead for a joint “eco-adventure” with the International Wolf Center.
Other supporting organizations include Defenders of Wildlife.
Hutt says she believes partnerships work best for wolf recovery — and for the coalition.
“A small nonprofit like the coalition does best,” she says, “when it works with other organizations rather than in competition.”