Call of the wild

What drove a 4-year-old male red wolf to leave St. Vincent
Island and swim to the mainland can only be surmised.

Perhaps it was the excitement of the weekend, or a nagging curiosity,
a feral drive towards a mysterious something out there he had to find.





Perhaps it was his knowing that a 7-year-old female wolf had
been found dead on the island that same weekend, and he had to figure out a way
to handle the trauma.

Whatever it was, the young wolf was determined to light out
for the territory, and so sometime on Saturday or Sunday, April 16 or 17 swam
off the island towards the mainland.

Like the three other wolfs on the island, this male is endangered,
meaning it is a member of a species considered to be facing a very
high risk of extinction in the wild.

It was a risky flight from the protections of the St.
Vincent National Wildlife Refuge, where he had spent the last four months.

Because he was wearing a VHF radio telemetry collar, refuge
officials knew the wolf spent Friday on the island. But on Monday, April 19,
the male was detected as being on Cape San Blas peninsula.

Jennifer M. Koches, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Fish and
Wildlife Service (USFWS), said the wolf probably swam at least one-quarter of a
mile.

“Efforts to relocate and safely capture the wolf
were coordinated by the USFWS along with a host of partners, to include the
Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission Division of Law Enforcement,
Gulf County sheriff’s office, Port St. Joe Police Department, Florida Department
of Environmental Protection, U.S. Department of Agriculture, U.S. Geological
Survey, Friends of St. Vincent NWR, and numerous volunteers from the community,”
she said.

Gulf County Sheriff Mike Harrison said he met with John Stark,
the deputy manager of the refuge, along with other staffers last week as the
hunt got underway.

“We afforded them all resources,” said Harrison.” I let him know
we had a drone, and later in the week, we then did have a sighting at the old St.
Joe mill property. We deployed our drone and did several missions over there
just to look at it. But people on the ground were unable to locate him that
afternoon.”

After loping into town from the Cape, the wolf had likely
ducked into heavy brush at the mill site, and the search continued by wildlife personnel,
armed with a blue net and a metal pole.

“I’m thinking of tranquilizers,” said Harrison, but he
deferred to those familiar with a wolf’s behavior.

Koches said once the wolf was detected by refuge staff on
the mainland, his movements were tracked following observations called in from
several neighbors, the Gulf County Sheriff’s Office, and Florida Fish and
Wildlife Conservation Commission law enforcement.

“The tremendous community effort to keep FWS aware of his
general location effectively aided in his relocation and safe recapture,” she
said.

 At some point, the wolf decided it made more sense to
take the Highland View Bridge on his westward trek, rather than the canal.

Lacey Linton caught a picture of him on the bridge on
Wednesday evening, April 21. Adam Hamm commented that two days earlier, he had
seen the wolf running on State Route 71 towards the White City bridge.

The wolf’s mainland visit ended peacefully, without
incident, on Saturday, April 24, on private land approximately five miles to
the northeast of Mexico Beach. He was estimated to weigh about 55 pounds when he was recaptured.

Koches said refuge officials have decided it best the wolf
be placed in a captive facility within the Red Wolf Species Survival Plan
recovery program and not released back into the wild. 

The Red Wolf Species Survival Plan (RWSSP) is a
set of extensive conservation measures and activities designed to ensure the
longevity and security of red wolves as a species. Overseen by the Association
of Zoos and Aquariums, the plan includes over 40 wildlife
sanctuaries, zoos, and other facilities that assist in the captive breeding of,
care of, and public education about red wolves.  There are currently over
250 red wolves in captivity.

The red wolf Canis rufus is considered one of the world’s
most endangered wild canids. Once common throughout the southeastern United
States, red wolf populations were decimated by the 1960s due to intensive
predator control programs and loss of habitat. A remnant population of red
wolves was found along the Gulf coast of Texas and Louisiana.

After being declared an endangered species in 1973, efforts began
to capture as many wild red wolves as possible. Of the 17 remaining wolves
captured by biologists, 14 became the founders of a successful captive breeding
program. Consequently, the USFWS declared red wolves extinct in the wild in
1980. As of March 2021, there is a single wild population comprising of only 10
known individuals.

In 1990, USFWS implemented an island propagation site on St.
Vincent to aid in red wolf recovery. Its role, Koches said. is to maintain a
wild breeding pair to propagate pups in a somewhat controlled but natural
environment that will provide them with experience in the wild as juveniles for
the purpose of being strategically translocated into the North Carolina
Nonessential Experimental Population, when they reach the age of dispersal at
around 18 to 24 months,

“The ability to translocate wild red wolves from St. Vincent
National Wildlife Refuge (to North Carolina) is a vital component of the Red
Wolf Recovery Program,” she said.

When the male red wolf came to St. Vincent four months ago,
he was paired with a 7-year-old resident female in an acclimation pen for two
months, but the pair did not stay together after release, Koches said.

With the transfer elsewhere of the adventurous male, there
are now two red wolves at the refuge, a 3-year old female and a 2-year old
female who are sisters from different litters. They were both born and raised
in the wild on the refuge. 

Koches said that there had also been a 7-year-old female on
the island, but she was found “in mortality mode” during VHF radio telemetry
tracking on Friday, April 16.

“Her body was found later that day on the refuge,” she said.
“A cause of death could not be determined, but foul play is not suspected.”



Meet the Editor

Wendy Weitzel, The Star’s digital editor, joined the news outlet in August 2021, as a reporter covering primarily Gulf County.

Prior to then, she interned for Oklahoma-based news wire service Gaylord News and for Oklahoma City-based online newspaper NonDoc.com during her four years at the University of Oklahoma, from which she graduated in May with degrees in online journalism and political science.

While at OU, Weitzel was selected as Carnegie-Knight News21 Investigative Fellow among 30 top journalism students from around the country. She also was senior editor managing a 12-person newsroom in coordination with Oklahoma Watch, a non-profit news organization in eastern Oklahoma.

Wendy Weitzel The Star Digital Editor

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.