Contact: Bonnie Strawser - 252-473-1131
May 24, 2010
Red wolf pups go into the wild
BY T. DELENE BEELAND - Correspondent
These two rare red wolf puppies, 12 days old, were born at Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago. Biologists tucked them into a wild wolf's den, at left, with her two puppies, where they will be raised and join the wild red wolf population in Eastern North Carolina. Photo Credit: Ryan Nordsven - USFWS.
By the time the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service biologists finished their work on April 30, a wild female red wolf in Tyrrell County returned to her den and discovered she had two more puppies than she left. They were not hers, but they wiggled around with her two existing pups just like family.
The mom was chosen by the Red Wolf Recovery Program to receive the foster pups, born April 18 - about the same time as her own - at the Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago.
Earlier that morning, Lincoln Park Zoo animal keeper Erin Hennessy brought the 12-day-old puppies - one male, one female - in a mesh pet carrier aboard a commercial airline from Chicago. They were bound for the Red Wolf Recovery Area, a 1.7 million acre mix of public and private land on the Albemarle peninsula.
The red wolf was considered extinct in the wild in 1980, but a first-of-its-kind captive-breeding program begun in 1969 ensured the species' survival. Including this year's puppies, there are 188 red wolves in captivity in more than 40 certified zoos and wildlife facilities in the U.S. In 1987, the first eight red wolves were returned to the land in Eastern North Carolina, and now about 100 red wolves are estimated to live in the recovery area. Fostering puppies - slipping captive-bred pups into dens of wild red wolves with litters of their own - is one way the Fish & Wildlife Service increases the wild population.
"I think the maternal instinct is just so strong at that point, it doesn't matter if they are not her own pups," said Ryan Nordsven, a service biological technician.
Looking for a wolf
If all went well, April 30 would be the 12th fostering event the service had done since 2002, moving a total of 26 red wolf puppies into the wild.
Nordsven invited me to come along because I'm writing a book about red wolves. On the morning of the 30th, he drove me to the den site on private property in Tyrrell County in northeastern North Carolina. The farm owners have cooperated with the red wolf program for many years, he said. We bumped across a dirt road between agricultural fields edged by an unruly sea of wax myrtle bushes and pines.
At the site, we met with service biologists Chris Lucash and Ford Mauney. To pull off the fostering, they needed to find the den of the pack - a breeding pair and two juvenile wolves born last season - but red wolf mothers are expert at camouflaging their dens.
"Sometimes we get really lucky and just walk right up to the dens," Nordsven told me. "But sometimes we're out there for days just searching in the brush. You never know how long it will take."
The biologists had located the pack's den about a week before, and knew she had two pups about the same age as the zoo's litter. They had chosen the 9-year-old mother for fostering because she had adopted two foster pups the year before, plus her wild litter this year was small, Nordsven said. To the best of their knowledge, all foster pups are accepted by their adoptive mothers, Nordsven and Lucash said.
But once her den has been discovered, a red wolf will nearly always move it. So the biologists had to search all over again for the fostering. Because the majority of wild red wolves wear radio collars, the biologists can usually find them with time and effort.
Searching on foot often means walking across open expanses of coastal plain in the hot sun with no shade, or crawling on hands and knees through timber stands laced with thorny vines and dense with nearly impenetrable shrubs.
Hennessy and I waited with the puppies while Lucash, Nordsven and Mauney used handheld telemetry units to zero in on the female red wolf and approach her. The biologists move as silently as possible when they are creeping up on a den. They stalk with soft steps, use hand signals and will often pause on purpose.
"If we walk in a straight line and stomp around, we sound like people," Nordsven explained. "But if we pause now and then, it can buy us time before the wolf flees. We basically try to sound like a squirrel or a bird moving through the brush, and not a biologist."
A successful search
The group came back for us after 15 minutes of searching. It was an easy day, and they had lucked out. Lucash shouldered the pet carrier holding the pups, and we re-traced their steps.
"We will only foster pups if they are the same age as the wild puppies," Lucash said along the way. "It works best if they are about a week to two weeks old but before their eyes are open."
The den was a small yawn of an opening, hidden beneath a thick canopy of wax myrtle. Normally, Lucash would have handled the puppies, but he let Hennessy and me each take a pup and crawl under the myrtle canopy. We crouched around the den's mouth. Mauney fished out a wild pup.
"Let's see how much pee you got," he said to the tiny male pup, holding it above the foster pup in Hennessy's hands. He tickled its privates and a few drops of urine scattered down.
The biologists try to get urine or feces from the wild pups and rub it on the foster pups to increase the chances the female wolf will accept the new arrivals as her own, Lucash told me.
Mauney replaced the first pup and fished the second out. He held her above the pup in my hands and tickled her, too. Golden liquid rained down. He rationed it between my pup and Hennessy's.
"Aw, you got lots of pee!" Mauney exclaimed.
Wolf urine skirted off the pup's fur and onto my hands. It was only then that I realized I was not wearing gloves. Later, Nordsven told me they always wear gloves when handling the pups but had gotten "carried away" on this day.
I handed the pup to Mauney, who placed the newly christened foster pups into the den. The new siblings piled against each other.
We trekked back to the trucks and wondered aloud about what would happen next, when the female returned to the den and found her litter had doubled in size. The service used to return the next day to verify whether the female wolves, when they moved their den, had also moved the foster pups, Nordsven said. But they eventually stopped the disruptive monitoring practice when it was apparent the wolves always accepted the pups.
Altogether, the biologists counted 41 red wolf pups in eight litters this puppy season, including the foster pups, Nordsven said. "We suspect there could be more litters, but we're not sure we'll find them 'til they are older," he said.
Getting whizzed on by a rare red wolf pup was the last thing I expected when I woke up that morning. But it's not unusual for each day to bring surprises to both wolf field biologists and red wolves.
This female red wolf lives in a secure facility on the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge, part of a captive population kept to preserve the critically endangered species. Photo Credit: T. Delene Beeland.
Know your scientists
Title: Wildlife biologist, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service
Why he's a biologist: "Curiosity and fascination with wildlife and all aspects of the natural world has stayed with me since childhood. My desire to effect positive change on behalf of the disappearing diversity of the natural world keeps me motivated."
Title: Biological technician, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service
Why he's a biologist: "The preservation of biological diversity and our natural resources in today's world is extremely important to me, and the opportunity to assist with the protection and restoration of a critically endangered species such as the red wolf is exceptionally gratifying."
Looking for puppies
Red wolves ( Canis rufus), classified by the International Union for Conservation of Nature as "critically endangered," are one of the world's rarest canids. During April and May, biologists search for dens. When they find pups, they draw blood to verify the animals are pure red wolves, and insert a radio frequency identification chip beneath the skin between the pup's shoulder blades. The chips let scientists identify the wolves when they are older.
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