An unlikely, but genetically valuable wolf named Jasper fathered a litter of puppies with 4-year-old female Ember in April at the Land Between the Lakes, in southwest Kentucky.
Jasper was widely considered too old to breed at 13, according to a press release from Woodlands Nature Station, the site where the puppies were born. Ember is a more typical age.
The birth of the pups from a critically endangered species was already exciting, and Jasper’s genes are considered the 7th most valuable of all living male red wolves.
“Jasper’s genes are not well represented in the current population of red wolves, so having his genes through this new generation will benefit the genetic heritage for the red wolf,” wrote John Pollpeter, lead naturalist and animal care coordinator for Woodlands Nature Station, in an email to the Herald-Leader.
“Also, Jasper’s family tree runs pretty close to the original founders, so it is a strong genetic line. He does have kids and grandkids out there still,” Pollpeter continued.
Five puppies were born April 26, but only four survived. Two females and two males made it, and the press release said they are healthy, gaining weight and growing quickly.
The siblings were named the “Fantastic Four” by staff, and they will remain in their den for at least six weeks.
Unfortunately, the Fantastic Four face tough prospects growing up.
“This is still a very vulnerable time for the pups, and we need to be prepared they may not survive, as only one out of every four litters make it,” Pollpeter said in the press release.
“We are taking the necessary precautions to protect the litter and increase the survivability of this majestic and critically endangered species. We are prepared to keep them for 18 months until they are eligible to be transferred to another zoo or nature center to start their own families,” Pollpeter said.
They won’t be on view for the public at this time, but the Woodlands Nature Station will offer regular red wolf viewings in June.
You are not guaranteed to see the pups, but you can check on them in the nature preserve’s “Weekly Pupdates” on its Facebook page.
What happened to U.S. red wolf populations?
Red wolves were once deemed extinct in the wild, but were successfully reintroduced to the U.S. in 1987. The Woodlands Nature Station is home to the only captive breeding pair in Kentucky, the press release said, and there is only one place where the canines still live in the wild in the country.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has been restoring red wolf populations in the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge in northeastern North Carolina for more than 20 years. According to the Wolf Conservation Center, the refuge is home to 10 red wolves as of fall 2021.
There were eight known wild red wolves in North Carolina as of October 2021, according to the Wolf Conservation Center.
Why are red wolves so endangered?
One of the primary reasons repopulation is so difficult is there’s such a small number of surviving red wolves to breed, Pollpeter said.
“Red wolves got down to about 14 individuals by the time they started an intensive breeding program in the 1970’s. They have experienced a tight genetic bottleneck. They are working with the genes of basically 12 animals. This makes them more susceptible to disease, environmental changes, genetic disorders,” Pollpeter wrote the Herald-Leader.
“The red wolf population is carefully controlled and mates genetically selected to avoid these issues, but it will take time to work through this bottleneck, many generations. The Red Wolf Species Survival program works with all its 45 captive breeding facilities and the US Fish & Wildlife Service to maximize the success of the red wolves.”
Intensive predator control programs and habitat loss in the 1960s contributed to the declaration of red wolves’ extinction, and although they were successfully reintroduced, there are plenty of challenges facing conservation efforts.
According to the National Wildlife Federation, a nonprofit advocacy group, interactions with coyotes pose a risk to continuing red wolf populations because the animals breed, and red wolves lose distinguishing factors.
Climate change causes habitat loss, as well as increases interactions between red wolves and humans, which can be deadly to the canines. The NWF says red wolves are shy and unlikely to approach people, but red wolf killings still happen.
In general, the law does not punish those who kill a red wolf because it was attacking their livestock or in accidents and a few other situations. But deaths must be reported, and the wolves should never be killed unnecessarily.
A red wolf was found shot April 15 in Tyrrell County, N.C. The wolf collapsed in mud after being shot in the spine, and mud was found in its lungs. The USFW is offering a $5,000 reward for information that leads to a conviction in the case.
How can you help red wovles?
There are a variety of nonprofit wolf conservation programs accepting donations. One is the National Wildlife Federation.
You can also donate to organizations aiming to fight climate change and general conservation groups.
If you find yourself in the rare situation where you encounter any endangered species in the wild, these tips from a Florida water management district might help.
Allow the animal to move on without pursuing it or stressing it out.
If you can do so without following it, take a photo and share it with a wildlife biologist or conservationist. It can be helpful to let the experts know where endangered animals are appearing.
If you find a deceased wild animal, take a photo, leave the remains and contact authorities as soon as you can. In Kentucky, you could reach out to the commonwealth’s Department of Fish and Wildlife at 1-800-858-1549.
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