Despite laws put in place over the last half-century to safeguard endangered species against the dangers posed by humans, successful wildlife conservation involves systems that are far more complex than the average person may realize. Sadly, a breakdown in these systems has had a detrimental impact on the population of red wolves in the Southeastern United States. Once common to the forests and mountains of Asheville, North Carolina, human-caused killings have dwindled this species from 130 in 2006 to just seven individual wolves, as detailed by Dr. Suzanne Agan, an alum of Antioch New England’s PhD in Environmental Studies, and core faculty member Dr. Lisabeth Willey.
Their recent study—urgently titled: Majority positive attitudes cannot protect red wolves (Canis rufus) from a minority willing to kill illegally—is a continuation of Agan’s dissertation research and can be found in the current issue of the Journal of Biological Conservation. Agan, Willey, and their co-author Dr. Adrian Treves explain that a small subset of self-identified male hunters (just 11%) are the primary cause of this species’ grave endangerment. Other contributing causes include automobile accidents, community apathy, and a lapse in the enforcement of the Endangered Species Act by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
“Our results support the hypothesis that a small group of people willing to kill red wolves illegally is driving the species to extinction,” said Agan. “We don’t yet understand why red wolf poaching has been a problem for so long, and solutions to it have been ineffective. But knowing they have public support, management can make more effective decisions that enforce the Endangered Species Act in a way that expresses the value these animals have on the landscape.”
Agan and Willey explain conservation as an immensely complex task requiring not only the protection of red wolves but the restoration of their environments through active enforcement of legal protections, community education, and local networks of intervention. Though poaching is driven by only a small minority of individuals living in North Carolina’s Red Wolf Recovery Area, and most residents oppose the illegal killing of these creatures, community disengagement impedes conservation efforts. In addition to the need for law enforcement to re-engage with this issue, Agan and Willey urge the surrounding community to recognize the value these animals have on the landscape in hopes of motivating greater community intervention.
Through interviews and web-based surveys, Agan and Willey found that most residents living near Red Wolf Recovery in North Carolina generally support red wolf conservation. Though the threat is high, with the right level of community outreach and legal intervention, it is possible to prevent the local red wolves disappearance.
“We found the results of our attitude study to be very positive in that both those residents who know a lot about red wolves, and those who don’t, expressed a high level of support for their conservation in NE North Carolina,” Dr. Agan explains. “However, the current population is extremely small and vulnerable, and it only takes one poacher to kill a red wolf. Knowing [that law enforcement has] public support, management can make more concise decisions that enforce the laws of the Endangered Species Act in such a way that expresses the value these animals have on the landscape.”
This study comes at a pressing time as red wolves are now on the brink of extinction, but their population can be revived as it has been in the past. Agan and Willey relate that red wolves were eradicated from the Eastern United States during the 19th century as part of a government-sponsored program, but in 1967 they became one of the first species listed under the Endangered Species Act. In 1987, after nearly 100 years of extinction from the wild, red wolves were reintroduced to Eastern North Carolina from captivity.
Given the possibility of repopulation, Agan and Willey urge peer processes above all to discourage illegal behavior and restore red wolves to this human-dominated landscape. Their research adds to the growing empirical literature on endangered species protections and enhances the tactics used to measure and prevent illegal poaching worldwide. Further discussion of their work can be found on Biological Diversity Center’s news site.