Where Wolves and Alligators Meet: Alligator River NWR
By: Mike Jerrard
As we bike down the overgrown trails, my wife thanks me for the recommendation to wear jeans despite the late afternoon summer heat. Not only were the thistle bushes tugging at our denim, but the mosquitoes were proving to be a bit of a nuisance as well. Leaving the comfort of a beautiful oceanfront suite and the soft sand that beckoned to be laid upon, I somehow convince my wife to be dragged into a place containing bears, alligators, poisonous snakes, and wolves.
Just a short drive from North Carolina’s Outer Banks lies a refuge that provides habitat for one of the rarest canid species on earth. The Red Wolf, which like so many predators across North America and the world were persecuted and nearly driven to extinction, somehow managed to hang on to existence and is trying desperately to regain a foothold in reserves and refuges like Alligator River. After being declared extinct in the wild, the last of the known wild population was collected and put into a breeding program designed to save the species. Of the some 400 animals collected, only 14 were viable to be used for the breeding program due to issues ranging from hybridization with coyotes to infertility issues. The wolves are in between a Gray wolf and a coyote in size and to this day many doubt whether it is in fact a distinct species or a subspecies of either despite many detailed reports proving its distinction. The classification of species is such a confusing and in my mind somewhat of a demeaning process that sometimes we forget the animals are individuals just like each of us. It is sad that our classification could mean life or death for them. Despite the classification controversy the Red wolf has been protected and although the reintroduction of the wolves back into the wild didn’t go as well as hoped for many location, Alligator River for now has luckily proven to be a success story.
We eventually ditch the bikes as the muddy trail proved to difficult to progress any further. Scanning the creek banks for a rare glimpse of Red Wolf of which only some 50-70 wild individuals exist would right up there with spotting Florida panthers in the Everglades. A motion in the water just yards away catches our attention. Bright colorful striped shapes make there way to us. Our nerves become rattled when I realize it is a pair of poisonous Copperhead snakes. Luckily for us they were involved in a dual and paid us no attention. For the next half hour we were treated to an amazing display of battle in the water as they tried to push and shove each other. It is hard to know if it was two males or a male female fight as females will sometimes take on a potential mate to test his courage and strength.
Moving on from the snakes we focus our attention on seeing one of the other potential main attractions of the area, the Black bears. As evening approaches the bears are said to routinely appear in the corn and soybean fields that lie within the refuge. I knew deep down that the chances of seeing a wolf were extremely slim but had hopes for the bears. As I strain my eyes to keep out the glare of the setting sun, I scan the fields and tree lines in front of us for any movement. Suddenly I feel a tap on my shoulder. My wife turns me around and we both stand motionless as not one but two bears emerge like ghosts from the woods just 20 feet from us. We were so close that you could see the mosquitoes buzzing around the bear’s nostrils which were trying to take our scent in. Luckily they had the farmer’s crops on their menu and began to slowing head to the fields. Soon more bears emerged until there were literally bears numbering in the double digits all around us. All we could do was stand motionless in awe and take pictures of course.
Unfortunately night fell upon us and we would leave without a rare wolf sighting but completely fulfilled by what we did experience. Sadly a recent decision by the United States Fish & Wildlife Service could make seeing this incredible animal impossible rather than improbable. Succumbing to outside pressures regarding private lands and the ever important so called ” U.S. rights”, they have decided to halt the recovery program which could spell disaster for the wolf and ultimately undo all the efforts that have been done the past 40 years to save this wolf of the South. A species that once roamed from Texas to Florida could now be living its last days here in Alligator River or even more sadly in an enclosure at some facility. We have no doubt come so far in our efforts to save our endangered wildlife by way of laws and acts, however the ignorance and selfishness which is human nature still shows its ugly face even today and has the ability to cause another extinction.
“The United States Fish and Wildlife Service seems to be preparing the public for its eventual extinction in the wild,”
Sierra Weaver: Southern Environmental Law Center Attorney.
With all the controversy regarding the Red wolf such as is it really a separate species that deserves protection or why it was reintroduced on private land to “hunt” farm animals, one thing remains clear. This sleek slender wolf is an incredible animal and regardless of what any scientist wants to classify it as, it deserves at very least a fighting chance and respect. Take the wolves out of Alligator River and as beautiful of a place as it may be, it becomes just that, another beautiful refuge. It loses that sense of mystery and the chance to see something truly remarkable.