by Editor on November 20, 2013

An All About Wildlife Book Review

We read T. DeLene Beeland’s The Secret World of Red Wolves a few months back, enjoyed it as well as learned a great deal from it—and then got caught up in other things. But this is too fine a book to let it go by without at least a year-end mention here on All About Wildlife.

Beeland’s book is subtitled “The Fight to Save North America’s Other Wolf,” and as you may know, the red wolf (Canis rufus) represents one of the world’s earliest and biggest successes in the captive breeding and reintroduction to the wild of a critically endangered species. Once common throughout the Southeastern U.S. from southern Pennsylvania to Texas, by the 1970s red wolves had dwindled to no more than a few dozen individuals scattered along Texas’ Gulf Coast. In the first American effort of its kind, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service trapped fewer than 20 of the remaining animals—thereby rendering the species functionally extinct in the wild—and began breeding them in zoos and wildlife parks. So well did captive breeding work that a wild population of red wolves was eventually reestablished in a remote area of North Carolina, with a current population of over 100.

But the story is far from as simple and unambiguously triumphant as a brief summary would make it seem. Along the road to partial—and perhaps only temporary—recovery for the red wolf, there were plenty of interesting complications, setbacks, and controversies. The picture is further clouded by continuing confusion about whether red wolves really are a separate species in their own right, or are merely another version of the (Western) gray wolf, the Eastern wolf, or a hybrid of coyote and either gray or Eastern wolf. (It’s possible red wolves are a hybrid of all three—although according to Beeland it’s not even clear how genetically distinct gray wolves and Eastern wolves are from one another.)

In fact, it is the red wolf’s continuing willingness to hybridize with coyotes which may doom it in the end: Coyotes have been steadily invading the North Carolina sanctuary of Canis rufus, and wildlife officials are at a loss to stop them. The result has been an alarming spread of coyote genes though a tiny red wolf population that is in danger of losing its genetic identity.

The big lesson here would seem to be that once a species vanishes from the wild, attempts to restore it are likely to run into unanticipated and extremely costly problems. It is much better, cheaper, and more deeply satisfying in the long run to conserve wild creatures in their own intact habitats before such heroic but ultimately artificial efforts become necessary.

In any case, author Beeland tells the convoluted tale of the North American red wolf in clear and refreshingly readable prose. This book is a necessary read for anyone interested in wolf conservation, or in the captive breeding and reestablishment of endangered species.

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