The North Carolina red wolf situation is dynamic and complex, and no matter where you read about it, you’ll find a different perspective and concern.
But what hasn’t been shared, at least extensively, is the voice of the private landowner who is now required to deal with a growing red wolf issue on his own property, with little or no choices in handling it.
Wide Open Spaces was contacted by one such landowner, who, after reading our previous coverage of the issue, felt it necessary to share his story. He looked to provide another, equally important perspective on the problems and at sometimes blurry solutions to the red wolf issue in North Carolina.
More Wolf Stories
Now, as a portion of the issue sees its day in court (with a ban on coyote hunting a potential outcome of a February 11 court proceeding), it’s important that all voices are heard, and the total truth is made clear.
Red Wolves in North Carolina
First, some brief history: true red wolves are among the world’s most endangered canids. The species was common in the United States, but a combination of predator control programs and habitat interference reduced the numbers to endangered status in 1967.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has, since 1973, moved forth with the Red Wolf Recovery Program’s first plan approval. So far efforts have restored the estimated wild population to around 100, with nearly 200 in captivity.
The problem is, the 100 wild red wolves are believed to inhabit a fairly limited area. Their native habitat includes a mere five counties in Eastern North Carolina, specifically the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge. Here, the Fish and Wildlife Service planned to monitor and help the red wolf packs to recovery.
But, as wildlife often does, the wolves didn’t exactly stick to their part of the plan. Wolves are predatory animals that are likely to be on the move, and they aren’t exactly keen to the borders of their recovery area. They’ve also cross-bred with wild coyotes, creating a wolf-coyote hybrid that is becoming more of a predatory pest than anything to come before it.
That’s where North Carolina resident Jett Ferebee enters the story. His property, which he purchased in 1996, consists of 2,000 acres of recreational farmland adjacent to Alligator River. It was intended for hunting and bird dog training, two of Ferebee’s passions.
“My farm was a core area for one of the largest wolf packs in the entire system.”
When Ferebee considers what the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has said about the containment of endangered red wolves to their refuge area, he mirrors the idea that the wolves didn’t stick to the plan.
“My farm was a core area for one of the largest wolf packs in the entire system,” Ferebee said.
As he puts it, three issues have been at the center of the issue for Ferebee: First, there are in fact red wolves on Ferebee’s property, and U.S. Fish and Wildlife has not been able to remove them. Second, the inability to completely track and monitor red wolves in North Carolina has led to a wolf-coyote hybrid problem. Third, there has been a coyote hunting movement growing within the state, in an effort to curb the livestock destruction and other nuisances caused by coyotes.
As the situation has played out, Ferebee now has unidentifiable canines on his property, creating unsafe conditions for himself and his friends and family to enjoy the outdoor pursuits his farm once allowed.
“I’ve got four children, and we bought the farm purely as a recreational farm, to go hunting,” Ferebee said. “We used to go out there and see terrific herds of deer. My kid always referred to it as ‘Going to the zoo.’ You’d see, easily, over 100 deer, just riding through the farm. We had quail and turkeys were making a comeback, and it was literally like a zoo.”
After that, Ferebee said, “Well, then the wolves moved in.”
Ferebee was motivated to bring the issue to the proper authorities. His first contact with the Red Wolf Program led to a group of officials coming onto his farmland and attempting to scare wolves away with airhorns. The second try consisted of walking the wolves away, with less harassment, but even less success.
“It got so bad that my family and my friends quit wanting to go hunting out there. I coached a shooting team and a baseball team, and we’d always get kids and go down there and let them all experience hunting,” Ferebee said. “It was just a great thing to do with kids and families. But this year, we cancelled it all. There [are] just no deer out there.”
On many nights, Ferebee claims that wolf sightings outnumber deer sightings on his various trail cameras placed around his property. He decided to join another hunting club just to have a place to hunt, despite the fact that his 2,000 acres were meant to be prime hunting land.
In essence, the wolves drove Ferebee off his land, not the other way around.
The Revised Rules
“The red wolf is a non-essential, experimental species, and that’s what they will never put in the newspaper articles,” Ferebee claims. “With that, [the red wolf] doesn’t get all the protections that a true endangered species gets.”
Ferebee tracked down a 1995 rules revision from the Red Wolf Recovery Program, in which an expansion of the recovery area required private landowner cooperation and support. Inside that rule revision was this decision: “…the special rule is modified to provide that all landowner requests to remove wolves from their property will be honored.”
With that finding, Ferebee began his quest of finding a legal way to rid himself and his farmland of the wolves. It wasn’t his fault that the wolves made their way onto his land, and he’s not at fault for wanting them off.
“When I found that, and started pushing it, [it] was the first time that I got anyone at the North Carolina Wildlife Resource Commission to realize ‘Hey, we didn’t realize that [the rule change] was in there, and this is quite an issue here.’”
Ferebee met with coordinators of the Red Wolf Program, and when he read the legal documents, officials said that they would need to study the problem further in order to determine if the animals were truly red wolves. No decision was made.
Ferebee sought an answer, whether it was the removal of wolves from his land, or the legal protection to do so himself.
“I pushed every button there was to push,” Ferebee said.
Ultimately, another meeting ended with a vow to make things right, and an admittance of failure to follow through with the law. Trappers were sent onto Ferebee’s land, and they managed to capture two wolves. Meanwhile, more sightings of wolves or wolf-coyote hybrids had occurred on the farm.
Ferebee was put in a situation in which, should he be practicing the law and legally hunting coyotes on his land, an accidental killing of a red wolf would not be considered illegal.
On the contrary, the illegal taking of an endangered red wolf includes maximum criminal penalties of a one-year imprisonment term and $100,000.
“I think what upset me the most about that,” said Ferebee, “was they were putting me in a situation of me potentially breaking the law, being arrested and having to defend myself because they weren’t doing their job.”
Ferebee now possesses a US Fish and Wildlife Service permit to legally take a red wolf on his property. This, in form, serves as the legal protection he has been given against the accidental killing of an endangered red wolf.
Ferebee has said he does not want to eliminate what could be a small amount of a miniscule number of wild red wolves, but he also doesn’t want to continue owning a plot of land that has seen its quality of wildlife decreased, likely thanks in large part to predator impact.
“Conditions on the ground have changed. We are overrun with coyotes, and these red wolves readily interbreed with them,” Ferebee said.
Now, at a judicial hearing on February 11, 2014, the Animal Welfare Institute will fight in its case against the North Carolina state wildlife agency for legalizing day and night coyote hunting in the red wolf’s recovery area. Arguing that the coyote is an identical looking animal, the Animal Welfare Institute says the law violates the Endangered Species Act.
In a letter to the Mountain Express, the Animal Welfare Institute claims the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has reported that gunshot wounds are the leading threat to red wolf recovery, and that up to 10% of the red wolf population has been lost to presumed gunshot wounds each year since 2008.
That’s where Mr. Ferebee sees the main issue.
“The fact that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife [Service] did not honor their commitment to remove these unwanted wolves from people’s property has led to this total disdain for the Fish and Wildlife [Service] in that area by private landowners and hunters,” said Ferebee. “They end up just shooting them; that’s the only way they know how to deal with it. I think I’m the only one who has taken it to this point, and said ‘Hey, I don’t want to break the law. Y’all come abide by the law.’ I’ve taken the highroad; I’ve never shot a red wolf or even a coyote on my land because I don’t want to break the law.”
A devaluing of his farmland is one thing, but the overall environmental impact of a red wolf recovery program is another.
“What does a successful Red Wolf Program mean to North Carolina? These wolves can’t read a map.”
“What does a successful Red Wolf Program mean to North Carolina?” Ferebee asked. “These wolves can’t read a map of what county they’re supposed to stay in… I don’t know how you could ever convince me that it doesn’t have long-term effects on hybrid super-coyotes and its prey. They’ve studied everything that you can study about a red wolf… There’s nothing left to study there. What they haven’t studied is, What is the predator-prey relationship? What does a pack of red wolves mean to a landowner? I can tell you what it means: it means the wildlife is gone.”
Now, as coyote hunting and red wolf populations in North Carolina hang in the balance, the facts that have been released up to this point may not encompass the entire truth.
The case of Mr. Ferebee and his farm could go a long way in deciding the future of the situation, but the will and instincts of wild animals can never truly be curbed, which means there may not be a clear end to the story anytime soon.