Bill Freehling / Outer Banks Sentinal
It was 12:26 on Monday afternoon, and a 3-year-old alpha male red wolf had been defeated in a contest of hide-and-seek. The hider's ability to blend into the Milltail Creek area of the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge (ARNWR) had been compromised by a soft-plastic collar wrapping around its reddish neck. Every time it moved even slightly, a transmitter on the Telonics collar beeped.
Roughly 60 yards away, driving a Dodge pickup truck equipped with a 10-foot antenna, radio receiver and earphones, the seeker captured the signal, looked at her global positioning system, took a compass reading and quietly won the game.
Although the discovered wolf had lost this time around, it was due partly to this "game" that he had won something much more important: survival.
Twenty-five years ago, survival seemed doubtful for red wolves. Once a species whose numbers were in the thousands, the roughly 55-pound animal had been effectively eliminated from its native range, spanning the entire Southeast.
After it gained protection under the 1973 Endangered Species Act, the remaining 14 red wolves known to exist were removed from the wild by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) and placed into captive- breeding programs. In 1987, the USFWS released four pairs of wolves into the Alligator River Refuge, which was established in 1984.
Those original eight wolves on the ARNWR's approximately 152,000 acres have grown to more than 100 living on 1.5 million acres in a five-county area: Dare, Hyde, Tyrrell, Beaufort and Washington.
The land, home to the only wild red wolf population in the world, includes three national wildlife refuges - Alligator River, Mattamuskeet and Pocosin Lakes. It also includes a U.S. Air Force bombing range and private land that makes up roughly 60 percent of the total acreage.
The Red Wolf Recovery Program (RWRP), which operates under the USFWS, now has nine full-time employees, six of whom work in Manteo. Two work at Pocosin Lakes, and one runs the 30-location captive-breeding program from Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium in Tacoma, Wash.
The RWRP staff has fitted the wolves with collars since the animals first arrived. According to Buddy Fazio, national red-wolf recovery coordinator, the collars "help us know what the wolves are doing on a given day." The collars also show how wolves gather and reveal the habitat that they prefer.
The radiotelemetry tracking system has gotten more complex since 1987, however. In the early days, three RWRP interns would spread out to different locations and use hand-held compasses and receivers to pick up the signals. For two years, the RWRP has used trucks to track the wolves. They drive around until hearing wolf signals through their earphones. The antennas can capture signals up to 2.5 miles away, although their range is set at one mile to enhance accuracy.
After finding a wolf, interns note the truck's location. They then gather a compass bearing by rotating the antenna from the front seat and listening for the wolf 's signal, which is strongest at two peak points. In the middle of the two peaks, at a point called the null, is the direction of the wolf 's signal.
According to Leslie Schutte, biological technician for the RWRP, the system has been accurate to within one square meter, although 200 square meters is a more realistic goal.
Schutte said one intern can now track 20 wolves in a day. "They acquire data that is just so valuable to us," Schutte said. "Our database just gets bigger and bigger, and it's wonderful." Schutte said 76 of the wolves have been fitted with collars. Every fall, RWRP workers set padded leg-hold traps that capture the wolves without breaking skin. This allows them to put collars on newly matured wolves and replace ones whose batteries outlived their five- to seven-year lives.
Each wolf's signal comes through at a different frequency, which allows identification. The collars also are programmed to send a signal doubling in beats-per-minute when the animal hasn't moved for four hours. This allows staff to identify dead wolves - most frequently killed by cars on US 64 and US 264.
Schutte said that although especially sleepy wolves have napped for more than four hours before, it rarely happens. When it does, however, staff members check out the scene to make sure the wolf is all right.
Interns do ground patrol five times a week. In addition, the RWRP uses single-engine Cessna planes to track the wolves with air telemetry twice a week. Fazio estimates that the five-county program costs $500,000 of the $850,000 budgeted to the USFWS for the national recovery effort.
The program more than pays for itself locally. A 1997 study done by William E. Rosen, an economist at Cornell University, found that the wolves attract more than 25,000 households to eastern North Carolina each year. Their visits generate local revenue totaling more than $35 million annually.
To pique the vistors' interest, the locally run Red Wolf Coalition, a nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting the animal's recovery, holds weekly "howlings" on Wednesday nights during the summer.
Meeting at 8 p.m. at the Creef Cut Wildlife Trail on US 64 near East Lake, the howlings include information about the red wolf and the highlight of the night - hearing a wolf howl.
Wolves also make good neighbors, Fazio said. In addition to being shy creatures that stay away from humans, wolves dine on nutria - a rodent resembling a beaver that can cause wetland and levee erosion - and raccoons - which steal eggs from game birds.
But Fazio added that wolf recovery is important for much more than revenue or their effect on the land.
"It's a worthy effort," he said. "They're part of our national heritage, part of our country. Part of being a good steward is taking care of what's out there."
For more information, visit these Web sites: www.outer-banks.com/alligator-river/red-wolf.html, www.nczooredwolf.org and www.redwolves.com.
People who want more information or are interested in interning with the RWRP can call 252-473-1131, extension 243.
(Bill Freehling can be reached at 252-480-2234 or by e-mail at email@example.com.)
Reporter, Outer Banks Sentinel