Will N.C. Remove World's Last Wild Red Wolf Population?

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Red wolves are at the center of a controversy between conservations, hunters and landowners. Magnus Manske [CC by 2.0]/Wikimedia

The question of how to deal with gray wolves has caused huge controversy in Western United States. And now it seems that similar conflict is brewing in North Carolina, where state and federal officials, hunters, landowners and conservationists are battling it out over the fate of the red wolf.

There was a time when red wolves roamed across much of the southeastern United States, but a combination of habitat loss and hunting left them all but wiped out. For the last 28 years, however, the federal government has been working to reintroduce the wolves, creating what is thought to be the only wild population of red wolves anywhere in the world.

Yet while wildlife advocates celebrate the return of an important predator into the wild, many landowners, hunters and the state's Wildlife Resources Commission take a much dimmer view. In fact, reports National Geographic, the state is now asking the Feds to end their reintroduction program, and to remove protected status from the wolves so that they can be removed from private land:

Dan Glover, a North Carolina hunter, told officials at the state commission’s hearing that he opposes the federal program’s restrictions on hunting the wolves, which have no natural predators in the state. “They're smart, crafty animals,” he said. “They have the advantage to start with, and you put these restrictions on [hunting them and] they gonna run rampant." Jett Ferebee, another hunter who has campaigned for an end to the reintroduction program, told local media that red wolves have “ruined” his land by preying on the deer, rabbits, and turkeys he likes to hunt there.

Wolf advocates, such as the Red Wolf Coalition, question the idea that the 75 to 100 red wolves that are found in Eastern North Carolina have really brought down populations of deer, rabbit and other popular game. Instead, they suggest, deer and other animals have changed their behavior as natural predators have become more commonplace, making them harder to find.

Ultimately, this controversy points to a much bigger question. And that's how we learn to live in balance with nature.

As humans have taken up more and more land for our farms, homes, golf courses and shopping malls, we've pushed some species to extinction, and made regular human contact (and conflict) with what wildlife remains pretty much an inevitability. While farmers, ranchers and hunters may decry increased competition from predators, others point to the ecological and economic benefits of predators in the form of natural pest control and even eco-tourism.

Whatever the rights and wrongs of the red wolf program, when we look at conservation and reintroduction efforts from a global perspective, one thing is clear: Rewilding is possible, and it brings with it benefits as well as challenges. Indeed, in Europe, where a combination of legal protection and conservation schemes have been in place for several decades, the population numbers of some protected species have rebounded as much as 3,000 percent. There too, some have celebrated these numbers as unbridled success. Others have warned of conflict between our new non-human neighbors and our own needs.

I guess there's one thing we can say for certain about rewilding: Human-animal conflict is just one part of the puzzle when you reintroduce a predator. Human-human conflict seems to be just as significant.