Friday, August 18, 2006

Howling with the wolves on their own territory

By Diane Daniel, Globe Correspondent

MANTEO, N.C. -- Zacary Hunter, 8, was dressed for the occasion. His red T-shirt was adorned with an embroidered face of a red wolf and the lettering SAVE ME! His mother, Tricia, had made the shirt for him as part of a school project back home in Telford, Pa.

"It was a project on endangered species, and he got assigned the red wolf," Tricia explained. "We went online for his report and learned that a lot of red wolves are in North Carolina."

So when she, Zacary, and his brother Jacob, 5, came to the Outer Banks in late June on vacation, they immediately signed up for a Red Wolf Howling Safari, a two-hour educational program at the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge. Although visitors usually do not see the wolves (few people ever do), with a little luck and some human-produced howls, the wolves will howl back.

The refuge, on about 152,000 acres of forested wetland just east of Manteo and west of Columbia, is home to an abundance of wildlife, including bears, deer, otters, alligators, and at least 200 species of birds. But the most famous animal here is the red wolf, an endangered species that was declared extinct in the wild in 1980. In a reintroduction program, the US Fish and Wildlife Service captured the few remaining red wolves to breed them in captivity and reestablish the species in the wild. Though there are 38 spots in the country that conduct captive breeding programs, the only place in the world where red wolves roam wild is here in eastern North Carolina, across 1.7 million acres in five counties.

Wild, however, does not mean without human intervention. As part of the Red Wolf Recovery Program headquartered at the Alligator River refuge, more than half the wolves wear radio transmitter collars that emit frequencies so biologists can study their movement and behavior. Scientists do aerial tracking as well. And when they trap wolves to attach the collars, they inoculate them against heartworm and other diseases.

In 1987 the Fish and Wildlife Service released four pairs of captive-bred red wolves in the refuge, and today nearly 20 packs comprising 100 wolves roam the area. (There are places in New England to see red wolves in captivity: Roger Williams Park Zoo in Providence and Beardsley Zoological Gardens in Bridgeport, Conn.)

Before Zacary and Jacob went off to howl with the 100 or so other visitors, they visited a table staffed by Diane Hendry, recovery outreach coordinator, who showed them pelts from a red wolf and a coyote. Red wolves, about 4 feet long and weighing 53 to 84 pounds, are larger. Despite their name, they are mostly brown and buff, sometimes with a reddish color on their ears, head, and legs.

The boys next zipped over to the table staffed by Kim Wheeler , executive director of the Red Wolf Coalition, a nonprofit organization founded in 1997. With their own money, Zacary bought a coalition hat and T-shirt and Jacob bought a T-shirt, and they both made a cash donation. The coalition, which opened an office in Columbia last year, advocates for the long-term survival of red wolf populations by running educational and public-involvement programs. The weekly summer howlings, which started nine years ago and routinely fill up with more than 100 people, have boosted public awareness.

The howlings are located near a holding facility, where usually fewer than a dozen wolves are being held for a number of reasons, such as recuperation from an injury, making a transition to or from a captive facility, or genetic testing. The animals that howl back could be these wolves or members of th e packs.

With darkness descended and everyone gathered, Wheeler walked ahead of the group to start initial contact. Hendry, meanwhile, rounded up the couple of dozen children and had them practice their technique silently. "Cup your hands and raise your head," she said, and they did, taking their instructions seriously and not making a sound.

On this night, Wheeler's howling skills were put to the test. She started with one long "Ah-rooooooooo," followed by a shorter, then a longer one. Nothing. The group, about a football field away from her, listened intently while quietly swatting away bugs. Meanwhile, crickets, bullfrogs, and occasional airplanes supplied the noise.

Wheeler repeated her trio of howls, and, finally, in the distance, there were some garbled yelps and perhaps a howl. Wheeler returned to the crowd, asking Hendry, "Did they hear anything?" No one was sure.

The kids got their chance, followed by 80 or so howling adults. Surprisingly, from a different direction than Wheeler had been facing, came several lone howls. Relief replaced anxiety on the howlers' faces. Their mission had been accomplished.

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