The Wild World of Wolves
Hyde County's Wolf War
Will a nonresident landowner succeed in his campaign to derail North Carolina red wolf restoration?
On a cool November day in 1993, James E. Johnson, Jr. picked up his rifle and fired at an animal loping across his North Carolina farm. He later claimed he thought it was a coyote, a species so rare in the area that the local game warden has yet to see one.
Instead, the animal was a shy, fleet-footed, howling piece of history -- one of the first red wolves born on the mid-Atlantic coast in more than a century. The shot killed the young wolf instantly and became the opening volley in an escalating war against the endangered animals.
Last July, North Carolina enacted a law allowing landowners to kill wolves in two counties on sight. Although the law didn't take effect until this past January 1, since last November four wolves have been shot and another wolf trapped and drowned. A sixth, captured by government biologists at a landowner's request, later broke its leg in captivity and had to be euthanized. Their only crime: being wolves. No one has been charged.
The growing opposition threatens to cripple a bold attempt to restore the wolves to part of their native range. Since 1987, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) has been quietly releasing small numbers of wolves on federal refuge lands in the northeastern corner of the state. Some 50 or 60 have established a tentative foothold in four counties on the Albemarle-Pimlico Peninsula, giving biologists hope for successful reintroduction. The program enjoys broad support in the region and nationwide. But a small, well-connected group of landowners and local officials in one county has vowed to end it and may well succeed.....
By shooting a wolf...Johnson lifted the conflict to a new level....Under regulations in effect at the time of the shooting, landowners could kill wolves only to protect human life.
Enforcement officials played hardball and charged Johnson with violating the Endangered Species Act, a felony carrying a maximum $100,000 fine and one year in jail. Because Johnson reported the shooting, the charge was eventually dropped....
Whether James Johnson honestly thought he was shooting a coyote or was testing legal waters, the Endangered Species Act charge by all accounts infuriated him. He wanted the wolves off his land and out of the county, and he didn't have to look far for allies.
Hyde County's Board of Commissioners, led by Chairman Troy L. Mayo, had earlier passed a resolution opposing the red wolf program, as had the Washington County commissioners. Johnson retained a Raleigh lawyer and former state senator, E. Lawrence Davis, to write a bill for introduction in the North Carolina General Assembly to allow landowners to trap and kill wolves on their properties in the two counties. Even though the bill was a blatant attempt to circumvent federal regulations, State Representative Zeno Edwards sponsored it during a marathon General Assembly session last July. In the midst of budgetary wrangling, the bill passed with little debate.
"We've got a county that supports this," Mayo said after the law's enactment. "They fear these things....And the fear of this thing is changing the pattern of the way people live." Mayo, a building contractor in Swanquarter, the Hyde County seat, claims the wolves are unpredictable, will attack people, will kill for fun and eventually will kill all the game in the county. As evidence, he has been known to show a photograph of a deerhound killed by wolves....
Even though the new state law was not yet in effect, Johnson notified [FWS] last August of his intention to "trap and kill any red wolves on my property that I reasonably believe may be a threat to persons or livestock on the property." (There are no domestic livestock at Whitetail Farms, according to local sources.)
The setbacks have come at a critical time in the 25-year program aimed at saving the red wolf from extinction. Once common from Pennsylvania to Texas, red wolves were all but wiped out by two centuries of eradication efforts. In 1973 FWS launched a captive breeding program to try to save the species. Over six years, biologists captured the last known individuals in Texas and Louisiana, and in 1980 the species was declared extinct in the wild. A plan was developed to reintroduce the wolves in the Tennessee Valley Authority's Land Between the Lakes country, but it was dropped because of local objections and conservationist concern that the wolves might not be protected adequately.
In 1984 the wolves got a second chance when financially troubled PruLean Farms gave FWS 118,000 acres on North Carolina's broad Albemarle-Pamlico Peninsula. One of the wildest expanses on the eastern seaboard, the donated acreage became Alligator River Refuge. The new refuge was perfect habitat for Canis rufus, offering dense forest, open fields and abundant wild prey....
Alligator River Refuge's first released wolves had a hard time. Although small game was plentiful, the captive-raised wolves had to learn both to hunt and to avoid roads. Some were killed by motor vehicles. Others drowned in rivers or swamps or died fighting rivals over territory. Eventually they began to get the knack of surviving in the wild. The first litters arrived, then thrived. In just a few years the refuge reached its approximate carrying capacity of 25 wolves.
The overall goal of a red wolf recovery plan completed in 1990 is a minimum of 220 animals in the wild and 330 in captivity. In 1990 the Richard King Mellon Foundation gave FWS 104,000 acres of prime pocosin habitat (pocosins are coastal upland swamps) about 15 miles west of Alligator River Refuge to establish the Pocosin Lake Refuge. Although the purpose was the protect wetlands, this refuge can accommodate an additional 25 wolves....At least 26 pups were born last year, but with the budget-cutting mood in Congress it is unlikely that FWS will acquire additional habitat in the area. "We need more access to private land," admits wolf team biologist Michael Moore. "We've kind of reached a standstill here."
....The county's primary complaint was not wolves but money. As federal grants to states dwindled, Hyde County was forced to shoulder an increasing share of its education and social services budgets. With few other sources of revenue, the county has raised property taxes four times in the last six years. The increases have angered many residents, especially since the federal government owns a third of the county, including two additional refuges for waterfowl....
Caught in a budget crunch, county commissioners turned their sights on the four refuges, for which federal law provides for payments to counties in lieu of taxes. The payments are based on appraised land values, but the board felt the land was undervalued. To make matters worse, Congress has never fully funded the Refuge Revenue Sharing Act, so in most years the county doesn't even get this amount....
Although the wolf program has nothing to do with refuge payments, the county commissioners then seized on the wolf issue. After all, 1994 was an election year. "I don't think they should be paying millions for this thing when they don't even pay us what they owe," Chairman Mayo said last summer.
The wolves themselves have given residents few reasons to complain. In the eight years since they were introduced, there has been only one verified wolf attack on a domestic animal. In December 1993, two male wolves killed an unaccompanied deerhound that had entered their territory....Of 15 other verified complaints, ten were mere sightings, three involved wolves that had ventured into yards, one involved a wolf that fought with a deerhound....and one involved a wolf discovered in a goat paddock and removed by FWS biologists. All the wolves involved in complaints from private landowners were relocated or returned to captivity.
The team has investigated 15 other cases in which pets or livestock were killed, but no evidence of wolf involvement was found. On several occasions the team caught feral dogs. When someone complained about the killing of 12 bantam chickens and two guinea hens, the evidence pointed to the owner's German shepherd.
Still, the perception of marauding wolves persist, fueled by the anti-wolf rhetoric of the county commissioners. Every time a chicken or dog disappears, someone cries wolf. Some allegations border on the absurd. One woman reported that her pet rabbit had been "scared to death" by wolves. Although no evidence was found, wolf team members improved the woman's rabbit hutch and gave her a new rabbit for good public relations....
In June, 1993, a farmer reported that wolves had killed 11 newborn goats in a remote pasture adjoining Pocosin Lakes Refuge. Phillips set a trapline around the pasture for six weeks and caught a large feral dog. No goat carcasses were ever found, and the farmer's husbandry was suspect. Still, Phillips paid the man $220 for his goats.
Ironically, these efforts backfired. People became convinced that these payments were evidence of wolf depredation. Instead of building public support in Hyde County, they turned many residents against the wolves....
Some residents are coming around. Tom Jennette, who runs a hunting lodge and waterfowl guide service near Engelhard, was convinced that the wolves had killed two rabbits penned in his yard. "Something got in there and tore that pen apart," he says. "I knew it was a red wolf. Didn't figure a dog could do that much damage. They came out just as nice as they could and set traps. Instead of a wolf, they caught my neighbor's dog down the road."
Although anti-wolf hunters charge that the wolves prey on ducks and geese, Jennette says they actually don't bother the waterfowl at all. And when I asked him about the impacts on deer, he laughed. "There's so many deer in this state that they want you to shoot them," he told me. "Farmers will shoot 35 to 40 deer in the summer and leave them in the field. Why not let the red wolf have a few?"
....[A] weathered sign points north to Mattamuskeet Ventures, 19,600 acres of prime wildlife habitat. Owned by six investors who have been hunting there for years, the property teems with waterfowl, quail, bears and deer. Five or so wolves also live there, and as long as the wolf population remains classified as experimental nonessential, says director Chuck Blalock, they will be allowed to stay.
....The investors maintain 900 acres of impoundments, and they say nutrias -- muskrat-like rodents that originated in South America -- cost them dearly for repairs to ditch banks and dikes. If the wolves keep the nutria population down, Blalock says, they will be an asset to the farm.
Nor is he afraid the wolves will attack. He often takes his seven-year-old daughter hunting with him. "If I thought wolves were a danger, I'd never do that," he says. "When you take the hysteria out, it's not that big a deal."
....James Johnson continues to act as if all the wild animals on his Whitetail Farms and on a 3,400-acre tract called Goose Creek Properties that he owns in Tyrrell County are his personal possessions. Last November he was fined $4,070 for illegally shooting two black bears over bait on the Tyrrell County tract. Local hunters say he plans to put a game fence around Whitetail Farms....
Even though no known wolves remain on Whitetail Farms, Johnson and others recently founded a group called Citizens Rights Over Wolves Now (CROWN) to fight the red wolf program. Although CROWN so far has only about 40 members, it has already begun to make trouble. In March, Johnson's attorney, E. Lawrence Davis, representing CROWN, asked the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission to help rid the state of wolves....
A few days later, at a meeting of the Hyde County Board of Commissioners....Troy Mako, now the board's vice chairman and one of CROWN's founders, raised the possibility of using some of the [organization's] funds to pay a wolf bounty.
The new group has already scored a major local victory, persuading the owners of 8,200-acre Lux Farms bordering Alligator River Refuge to pull out of the wolf program. Members of a hunting club that pays $40,000 annually to lease the property complain that deer numbers have decreased since the wolves arrived. Refuge biologists say any deer decline has resulted from loss of habitat because of clean-farming techniques used over the last few years....
Four adult wolves and four yearlings have been living on or near Lux Farms. All were born in the wild. Some wolf-team members say it would be kinder to put the animals down than to subject them to the cruelty of captivity. But the team set out a trapline on the property in April. Meanwhile, on March 16 a ten-month-old female wolf pup from a family group living at Mattamuskeet Ventures was fatally shot about 1,000 yards from Lux Farms on another property....At this writing the incident was still under investigation.
The red wolf reintroduction program under way in coastal North Carolina is backed by a majority of residents in the vicinity, according to a North Carolina State University telephone survey conducted in February.
Of 600 people interviewed in five counties, 310 or 51.7 percent said they favor reintroduction and 181 or 30.2 percent said they disapprove. The rest had no opinion....Hyde County residents registered the strongest opposition, 48.8 percent....