Monday, September 18, 2006

Wolves disrupt Navy's plans

They've made themselves at home in a N. Carolina site pegged for an airfield

BY BILL GEROUX - TIMES-DISPATCH STAFF WRITER

"Definitely, it makes a difference that the wolves are now living here. Is the Navy going to ignore the Endangered Species Act?" Doris Morris spokeswoman for a group of residents against the Navy's planned airstrip

Biologists say at least six federally protected red wolves have taken up residence in a remote swath of North Carolina where the Navy is trying to build a practice airfield for its noisy Virginia Beach-based fighter jets.

Opponents of the planned airstrip in Washington and Beaufort counties say the wolves should prompt the Navy to look elsewhere. Navy spokesman Ted Brown would not comment last week, saying the Navy had yet to receive a formal report on the wolves' activities.

The Navy chose the airfield site in the boggy woods of northeastern North Carolina three years ago despite reports that red wolves roamed the area. Environmental groups have delayed the project with a lawsuit arguing that the Navy jets would disrupt hundreds of thousands of migratory swans and geese that spend winters at nearby national wildlife refuges.

The Navy wants a remote airfield where its jet pilots can simulate landings on aircraft carriers -- a repetitive and noisy exercise that now is conducted mostly around Oceana Naval Air Station in Virginia Beach.

This year, suburban encroachment of Oceana prompted a federal base-closing commission to threaten to move Oceana's jets and 12,000 jobs to Jacksonville, Fla., until Jacksonville decided it did not want the jet noise and disruption.

Residents put up a fight

The Navy plans to buy 30,000 acres in the two rural counties, which are poor, lightly populated, and dominated by family farms and the swampy Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge. But local residents have organized to fight the Navy. The descendants of farmers who cursed the red wolves for killing chickens now welcome the wolves as potential saviors from the roar of F/A-18 Super Hornets.

"Definitely, it makes a difference that the wolves are now living here," said Doris Morris, a spokeswoman for a group of residents against the outlying field. "Is the Navy going to ignore the Endangered Species Act?"

Derb S. Carter Jr., an attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center, which is involved in the federal lawsuit over the migratory birds, said the spread of the wolves into the site "is another fact that just emphasizes that this is an inappropriate place for what the Navy wants to do." It's also a potential legal issue, he said.

Red wolves, which have red-tinged fur, are the smallest of wolf species, with adults weighing 45 to 80 pounds. They are classified as an endangered species -- they were declared extinct in the wild in 1980 -- but they enjoy that level of protection only inside national parks and wildlife refuges.

It has taken nearly 20 years to rebuild the red wolf population in eastern North Carolina to 100, said Bud Fazio, who runs the red wolf recovery program for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service at Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge, just west of the North Carolina Outer Banks. And the red wolf population still fluctuates. Since 2004, Fazio said, 25 red wolves have been killed in eastern North Carolina, most of them shot by property owners or struck by vehicles on rural highways.

Bringing back the red wolf will restore ecological balance to the area, Fazio said. Red wolves may take occasional chickens from farmers, but they provide a great service by thinning the populations of deer and destructive varmints such as nutria, he said.

Plan could drive wolves out

In the three years since the Navy chose its airfield site, Fazio said, red wolves have spread into that area and beyond, and two wolf dens have been established near the planned airfield.

A den just north of the airfield site is home to an adult pair of red wolves with three cubs, Fazio said. In a second den just off the end of the planned runway, a female red wolf has taken up with a coyote. Biologists have sterilized the coyote and plan to supplant him with a male red wolf when an opportunity arises, Fazio said.

Construction of the airfield probably would drive the wolves from both dens and into other wolves' territory, prompting a bloody conflict, Fazio said. Also, the jet noise could disrupt wolf packs throughout the area, drowning out the howling on which they rely for communication.

The Navy has spent much of the past year reassessing how an influx of Navy jets might affect the large flocks of migratory geese in the area. A federal judge found its first environmental assessment inadequate.

Brown, the Navy spokesman, said the Navy employed a biologist full-time at the site throughout the winter and will incorporate her findings. He said the Navy's updated assessment -- a supplemental Environmental Impact Statement -- will be released this fall. He said the Navy continues to prefer the site in Washington and Beaufort counties to several others in the region.

  • Richmond Times Dispatch