Running with wolves

The other North American wolf: Ashevillean T. Delene Beeland spent a year shadowing red-wolf researchers. The result is a book that highlights efforts to save the species. image courtesy of UNC Press
The other North American wolf: Ashevillean T. Delene Beeland spent a year shadowing red-wolf researchers. The result is a book that highlights efforts to save the species. image courtesy of UNC Press

Local writer T. Delene Beeland throws herself to the wolves. Red wolves, that is. Over the course of a year, she shadowed researchers with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Red Wolf Recovery Program, watching as the team fought to keep coyotes from hybridizing the endangered wolf breed and to keep local hunters from shooting them. Her book, The Secret World of Red Wolves: The Fight to Save North America's Other Wolf, details what she saw and learned that year.

Beeland wrote about Mexican gray wolves for her University of Florida thesis about seven years ago. During her research, she ran across multiple papers about red wolves, sparking her interest in learning more about a creature the public knows so little about. Armed with a degree in interdisciplinary ecology, Beeland set out to answer the question, “What is the red wolf?”

Since completing her book, Beeland has kept in touch with the biologists she worked with. She currently serves as a board member of the Red Wolf Coalition and still maintains a strong interest in the affairs of red wolves.

Mountain Xpress: Why spend an entire year shadowing the FWS researchers?

T. Delene Beeland: What they do is different at different times of the year, so I wanted to be there … whether they’re trapping, trying to replace radio collars that had dying batteries or documenting dens.

What did you take away from the experience? It really impressed upon me the lengths that different agencies have to go through when a species is that far into extinction. The red wolf’s case is pretty extreme, and we’re lucky that it breeds so well in captivity. [But] there’s been so many challenges with putting them back in the landscape, then [there’s] the reinvasion of coyotes to the west and the hybridization issues between the coyotes and the red wolves. Second to that, I had no idea when I first started the book how controversial the original issues were, and [how that] has held back recovery in a way, because people don’t understand what they are.

What was it like to be close to and interact with an animal that has a reputation as being bloodthirsty? With some of my previous research with Mexican gray wolves, I’d already deconstructed that myth. … It was still very surprising how different their nature was, in terms of their fear of humans and their docile nature upon confinement.

Were you ever scared? No, [but] there was one moment where I was anxious, and that was in chapter three, “The Search for Spring’s Pups.” It was the first litter of pups we found when I was shadowing Ryan [Nordsven] and Chris [Lucash]. The female flushed and we found the den. She was hanging out about 100 yards away. When we started handling the pups, I did have a moment of anxiety, like, “What if she comes back?’ [Ryan] was like, “We’ve never in all the years I’ve been doing this have one confront us when we’re handling the puppies.”

What memory do you have that really sticks out the most? There were so many wonderful experiences when I was doing the fieldwork with the biologists and just having the opportunity to shadow them for so long. We saw wolves that were injured, [which is] a different experience … than seeing warm, wiggly puppies. Everyone likes puppies, right?
So what is the local significance? There was a reintroduction within the Great Smoky Mountain National Park at one point that didn’t work. The wolves just couldn’t handle living in the mountains. This is an issue of statewide natural heritage. It’d be wonderful if we could try to have a reintroduction again elsewhere. There are also red wolves … at the WNC Nature Center. People can always take trips to the red wolf recovery area. They can go on a howling safari to hear the wolves howl if they want to.

What kind of feedback have you gotten so far on the book? So far it’s been positive. I’m very anxious and curious to see how it will be received, not only by general readers and wildlife lovers, but by wildlife conservationists and professionals.

Has anything changed recently in the red wolf community? Last summer the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission proposed a change to its hunting regulations — nighttime, open-season hunting on coyotes, which basically means you’ll be able to hunt coyotes day and night every day of the year. [But] will this doubling of the hunting opportunity result in the doubling of the illegal killing of red wolves? Another concern is just the safety of the red wolf team. Sometimes they have to go out and do things at night, and if people [are] hunting at night that’s a concern.
There was a lawsuit threatened by the Red Wolf Coalition, the Defenders of Wildlife and the Animal Welfare Institute, which are collectively represented by the Southern Environmental Law Center. [North Carolina officials were] proposing statewide [open season] without any exceptions for the red wolf recovery area. These groups believe that the hunting regulation proposal violates the Endangered Species Act.

A second change, since I wrote [about] the spring pups: Each year since, there have been fewer pups, [possibly] because there are more coyotes in the red wolf recovery area.

Will you continue to work with the red wolves? I set up [the Friends of the Red Wolf group] after I finished the book, and we launched that in January. It’s a fundraising group to help fill in the holes with [the nonprofit Red Wolf Coalition’s] budget. … I’m hoping that the friends group can help raise money to buy some items on [the group’s] equipment wish list and eventually, if we can get some help, get some research grants as well. X

— Brandy Carl is an Xpress news intern and a senior at Western Carolina University. She can be reached at brandy@mountainx.com or 251-1333, ext. 128.

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