WASHINGTON — When the few remaining red wolves try to breed, they prefer a little privacy.
That's become a bit of a problem, and that's why Congress stepped in with $870,000 to build a better home for the once nearly extinct species.
The earmark in the $410 billion bill spending package that President Barack Obama signed this week is going to be used to help construct a new breeding center for the animals near Tacoma, Wash. The existing one is being encroached on by development, and the animals are more productive breeders in remote settings that mimic the wild.
Some of the money also is intended for expansion of the red wolf program in Asheville, N.C., which since 1985 has participated in the captive breeding effort with at least a pair and sometimes a family of wolves.
It hasn't been determined yet how the money will be divided between the facility in Washington state and the one in North Carolina, according to the earmark's sponsor, Rep. Heath Shuler, D-N.C.
It's all part of a decades-long effort to save the red wolf, a large, dog-like animal with tinges of red on its shoulders, legs and ears. The species, which was wiped out primarily by humans, who viewed the animals as predators, had been reduced to only 17 known survivors by the 1970s.
A reintroduction effort that began in 1986 has led to an estimated 100 to 130 living in the wild in eastern North Carolina, said Buddy Fazio, the red wolf team recovery team leader at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Manteo, N.C.
Another 210 are in captivity, either at zoos and nature centers across the country, on two islands in South Carolina and Florida, or managed by the Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium at the flagship facility outside of Tacoma that for decades was in a remote area well-suited for the shy wolves to live and breed.
"It used to be nothing but forest and farmland," Fazio said. "Suddenly, the facility is being swallowed up by high-density housing all around it. It has come to the point where the functions of the facility are extremely hard to achieve, in other words, breeding wild red wolves in a wild setting."
Fazio said the noise and other disturbances — there have been instances of people trying to break into the facility to steal red wolf pups — have unsettled the animals to the point where they're not breeding as often.
"You need a wild, quiet setting with no distractions," he said.
Tacoma already has acquired land with the help of several millions dollars in public and private funds about 45 miles away from the existing one, Fazio said. What it needs now is the money to build a new triple-fenced facility.
The wolves, which mate in the spring, live in a complex of fenced areas that include a form of shelter that mimics a natural den. There's a double-fenced arrangement on the perimeter of those dens to keep the animals far away from any disturbances, Fazio says. Fencing skirts have to be dug far enough into the ground so the animals can't dig out, and overhangs keep the animals from leaping out.
"They could easily climb a 10-foot fence," he said.
Scientists tried to reintroduce the wolves in the Great Smoky Mountains in 1991, but pups didn't survive largely because of a domestic dog disease, and the effort was discontinued in 1998. A wild population in northeastern North Carolina is believed to be the only one.
"The extinction of an entire species has broad consequences and is something we must avoid if at all possible," Shuler said.
Opponents of the congressional appropriations process say the merits of the program are largely irrelevant.
"They should face a merit-based review . . . to determine if this is a national priority," said Wesley Denton, a spokesman for Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., who opposes all targeted spending in bills.
In Hyde County, N.C., which was somewhat reluctant to welcome the wolves, some folks still think it's a "big waste of time and effort."
"They're interbreeding with coyotes," said H. Anson Byrd, a county commissioner, who is skeptical of the program's efforts to keep a truly full-blooded red wolf population alive. "It's going to go belly up on them."
Fazio acknowledges that some folks don't like wolves, in part because of misconceptions about the danger they pose to people or the frequency with which they attack livestock or pets.
"They're big scaredy-cats — they want nothing to do with people," Fazio said.
Still, the biologist admires the animal's resilience and welcomes the money to help them survive.
"No pun intended, they've been the underdog for so long and they keep persisting despite eminent threats of extinction," he said.
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