By next spring, visitors to a South Carolina nature preserve may get a glimpse of one of the world’s rarest animals.
Brookgreen Gardens expects three red wolves to be shipped from a zoo in Ohio to the Georgetown County nature center as part of an effort to revive the critically imperiled species in South Carolina and other states.
The plan is to breed red wolves in captivity at Brookgreen for display at zoos or for release in eastern North Carolina and, possibly, in the Lowcountry of South Carolina.
Fewer than 300 red wolves survive in the world today, mostly in captivity. The ruddy-colored animals, which are smaller than western gray wolves, once roamed the southern and eastern United States from Texas to New England. But by the early 1900s, red wolves had been virtually wiped out by hunters and farmers who saw them as threats and as the animals’ habitat dwindled. Today, they are a federally protected endangered species.
“These animals are disappearing and if we don’t do something to help them, you’re going to just be looking at pictures or cadavers in a museum,’’ said Andrea DeMuth, animals curator at Brookgreen Gardens. “You’re not going to be looking at the real thing.’’
Brookgreen’s red wolves would be kept in two fenced enclosures of more than one-acre each. The preserve, established in 1931, is widely known for its gardens, massive live oak trees and sculptures. It also has animals on display, with red wolves set to become the latest attraction.
The Brookgreen effort is underway as the federal government is reviving a plan, discussed during a virtual public meeting Wednesday night, to build up the species and release more red wolves into the wild. The federal program had for years made steady progress in establishing a wild population at the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge in coastal North Carolina.
But about 7 years ago, the program began to suffer as conflicts with people surfaced. Some red wolves that wandered off the refuge were shot by fearful landowners. Other wolves were hit by cars. The wolves also were believed to be breeding with coyotes. In 2015, the federal government stopped stocking wolves at Alligator River, a move that curtailed the wolf recovery program.
Today, only about 21 red wolves are living in the wild at Alligator River, down from 120 in 2012, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Following recent court rulings and a reassessment by the federal government, the service is now again bringing captive-bred red wolves to Alligator River.
Breeding pairs of wolves at Brookgreen would supplement efforts to restore the population, according to plans.
The Fish and Wildlife Service, which manages the red wolf recovery program, already has committed about $126,000 in grant money to Brookgreen, which has raised other funds for the enclosures. The wolf enclosures are projected to cost about $500,000.
DeMuth said Brookgreen expects to receive red wolves from the Akron Zoo in March, pending completion of the pens. The Ohio zoo is renovating the area where red wolves are kept and needs a place to send the animals, said Eric Albers, curator of animal operations at Akron.
The initial wolves going to Brookgreen will be three young males that the preserve’s staff will work with to become accustomed to managing the animals. Later, two breeding pairs of red wolves would be sent to Brookgreen, according to plans.
“We started very similar,’’ Albers said. “We had a pair of (females) to let us get used to working with red wolves and handling them before we got a breeding pair. With a new facility, it makes a lot of sense.’’
In South Carolina, red wolves already are on display on at least two sites, including the Sewee Center in northern Charleston County. The wolves at Sewee are not breeding pairs, but the center has had them in the past.
Nationally, the Fish and Wildlife Service says there are 243 captive red wolves at 49 sites.
The recovery plan seeks to increase the captive population to 330 red wolves, but the agency needs more places like Brookgreen where they can breed, officials say. The service is granting money to help increase the places for captive red wolves.
“We’re working to expand the space capacity of the captive breeding population so that we have a more robust population,’’ said Emily Weller, the Fish and Wildlife Service’s red wolf recovery program coordinator.
The effort will increase “genetic diversity long term and support recovery through reintroductions,’’ she said.
Federal officials say if their efforts are successful, red wolves could be taken off the endangered species list by 2072. It could cost as much as $256 million to help the red wolf population recover.
While Brookgreen is expected to receive red wolves for breeding, one issue that needs resolution is whether additional sites can be secured for the release of wolves into the wild — and where those places would be.
The Alligator River site is the only one active nationally. One in the Smoky Mountains was shut down years ago.
The 259,000-acre Francis Marion National Forest in South Carolina has been discussed in the past as one possible site for a wolf release, although the current wolf restoration plan doesn’t mention specific areas.
Not everyone likes the idea of releasing red wolves into the Francis Marion. Critics say the wolves could upset the balance of nature and breed with coyotes that many people consider nuisances. That could hurt existing wildlife and even threaten people, said David Strickland, a Lowcountry hunter who is tracking the red wolf issue.
“We’re going to make our coyotes about 25 pounds larger, your turkey population is going to get decimated, your white-tailed deer population is going to get decimated,’’ Strickland said. “Your bobcats are going to lose all of their prey species. They are going to become a targeted species.’’
Strickland, citing a 2016 UCLA study, said animals touted as red wolves are not genetically pure, having mixed with coyotes and other types of wolves.
Others dispute the UCLA study. A 2019 National Academy of Sciences report found red wolves to be a distinct species. Albers said the Ohio zoo animals are genetically wolves.
Red wolves that are reintroduced to an area could drive away the smaller coyotes, the Fish and Wildlife Service’s Weller said. She emphasized that the service has not picked the Francis Marion, saying she was speaking generally.
During Wednesday night’s hearing on the latest red wolf recovery plan, another Fish and Wildlife Service official said the agency has launched programs to sterilize coyotes.
Despite the menacing reputation of wolves, the southeastern wolves are actually bashful animals that pose little threat to people, biologists say.
Red wolves stand about 26 inches at the shoulder and weigh 45 to 80 pounds. They are smaller than gray wolves, which can reach 120 pounds, but larger than coyotes that stand about 23 inches and weigh 17 to 35 pounds.
Red wolves actually could help the ecosystem because they will return as an apex predator in the wilds, supporters of the program say. The Francis Marion National Forest has plenty of prey believed to be suitable for red wolves and plenty of room for the animals to roam.
“Without that top predator, ecosystems become out of balance — that’s why coyotes are in the southeast now,’’ Weller said. “Coyotes are not native to this part of the country. But once the red wolf was hunted and populations decimated, that allowed them into the area. And that has had a cascading effect on other (animal) populations.’’
The Francis Marion National Forest, which is near the Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge in northern Charleston County, would make a good spot to complement the Alligator River refuge, said Ron Sutherland, the chief scientist with the Wildlands Network conservation organization.
“The recovery plan calls for a total of three (separate) populations, so that could certainly bring South Carolina back into play,’’ Sutherland said. “Francis Marion-Cape Romain still seems like a pretty good spot to me to think about red wolf recovery.’’
Brookgreen’s participation in red wolf recovery efforts would not be a first in South Carolina.
For nearly two decades beginning in 1987, red wolf pups from a wild breeding program at Cape Romain were relocated to the Alligator River refuge in North Carolina.
A pair of adult red wolves roamed Bulls Island, the widely known barrier island and centerpiece of the Cape Romain refuge. But the Cape Romain breeding program ended in 2004, in part because wildlife managers said the wolf population was beginning to take off at Alligator River and the South Carolina program wasn’t necessary.
More than two dozen wolf pups had been born on the island during the time it operated.
Wolves also successfully mated in captivity about eight years ago at the Sewee Center, the first time puppies had been born there. Sewee is a visitors center for the Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge and the Francis Marion National Forest.
Regardless of whether the Francis Marion or Cape Romain preserves become part of the red wolf program in the future, DeMuth said establishing breeding pairs at Brookgreen is a good thing.
Animals would be available for zoos or wild release in other places. And having a display at Brookgreen will help educate the public about red wolves, she said.
“They are very beautiful,’’ DeMuth said. “This is a conservation cause that we want to be involved in because this is an animal that used to be native to this area..’’