Friday, March 29, 2013

Red Wolf Species Survival Plan

What is a Species Survival Plan (SSP?). The American SSP program was developed in 1981 by the American Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA). The mission of an AZA SSP Program is to cooperatively manage specific, and typically threatened or endangered, species population within AZA-accredited Zoos and Aquariums, and other AZA conservation partners including Certified Related Facilities, and Approved Non-Member Participants.

SSP programs focus on animals that are in danger of extinction in the wild, these captive breeding programs may be their only chance to survive; these programs also help maintain healthy and genetically diverse animal populations within the zoo community. SSP programs significantly contribute to field conservation efforts, species recovery, veterinary care for wildlife disease issues, and establishment of assurance populations. There are currently more than 300 SSP Programs, each managed by their corresponding Taxon Advisory Groups, within AZA. For each species, a comprehensive population Studbook and a Breeding and Transfer Plan are developed which identifies population management goals and recommendations to ensure the sustainability of a healthy, genetically diverse, and demographically varied AZA population.

Red Wolves were nearing extinction in the wild when the Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium in Tacoma, Washington established a captive-breeding program in association with the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS). The Point Defiance Zoo developed husbandry techniques, recruited four additional cooperating institutions to house wolves in the captive program and received AZA approval for a Red Wolf SSP program in 1984. By 1984, the captive population numbered 63 individuals and was growing, largely through the coordinated efforts of the Point Defiance Zoo and Red Wolf SSP cooperators.  These efforts made the release of red wolves into the first reintroduction site at Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge in 1987 possible.  Today, there are 43 SSP facilities participating in the Red Wolf SSP program (use this link for map and websites of all SSP cooperators), with ~190 red wolves.  The Red Wolf SSP is the foundation of the recovery program. Without its collective expertise and resources, the future of the red wolf would be uncertain. The contributions of the RWSSP include: (1) managing populations, (2) training field personnel on techniques for proper capture and restraint, (3) applying captive research to the field and (4) reintroducing captive born red wolves.

 Red wolf SSP locations. 

Successful conservation programs are often developed through partnerships. The Red Wolf Recovery Program is a great example of organizations working together to benefit a species. Zoos can play a significant role in red wolf recovery by informing visitors about the value of wolves in ecosystems and inspiring the public to support the wolf's reestablishment in the wild.  We encourage you to check out the websites of the Red Wolf SSP program participants.  There are a lot of photos, videos, and educational resources available on red wolves! Most of them also have Facebook pages, blogs, Twitter, and You Tube accounts as well.

Here’s just a few you can explore the resources of:

Chattanooga Nature Center (Chattanooga, TN)

Fort Worth Zoological Park (Fort Worth, TX)

North Carolina Museum of Life & Science (Durham, NC)

Wildlife Science Center (Forest Lake, MN)

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Update on new red wolf breeding pair 11470 & 11872

As we mentioned in our Valentine’s Day blog, sometimes there are special circumstances where we try to pair up a lone red wolf with a new mate before release.  In February, we paired a female red wolf (11470) with a recently captured male, 11872.  11470 lost her mate this past winter and 11872 is a young disperser who was living a neighboring home range and we thought they might be a good match.  We introduced them to each other in a captive pen first to allow them to meet and investigate the other animal and new surroundings and then on February 23rd, we released them together in her original territory.

 11872 and 11470 ready to be released. Photo by B. Bartel/USFWS.

 11470. Photo by B. Bartel/USFWS.

11872 following 11470 post-release. Photo by B. Bartel/USFWS.

For more photos of the release, check out our Facebook photo album

The release went well and 11470 raced out of the holding kennel back into her home range, with 11872 following close behind.  Unfortunately, during a telemetry flight a few days later, we discovered that the pair was no longer together.  11872 left 11470 and had returned to his natal pack which was located nearby.  We were initially disappointed and concerned as it was the peak of breeding season and we wanted 11470 to have good options of finding an appropriate breeding partner.  So we did something that is difficult for many biologists—we waited.  We were hopeful that 11872 might disperse from his natal pack again and find his own territory.  This month, we were delighted to detect that he was located outside of his pack’s home range, closer to 11470 again.  We were cautiously optimistic.  After several more telemetry flights and ground surveys, Red Wolf Recovery Program field biologists confirmed that the pair was together again.  While it’s only been a little over a week since 11470 and 11872 have been reunited, we are hopeful that they will remain together for the rest of the breeding season.  Fingers crossed!  We’ll keep you updated.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Highlighting research: red wolf disease

Graduate student Kristin Brzeski was mentioned on our Feb 11th blog on red wolf capturing and processing techniques, and as promised, here are details about her research examining red wolf immunocompetence. Immunocompetence is a fancy way of describing an individual’s ability to defend his or herself against diseases. Because wild red wolves persist in one small population, they are very vulnerable to inbreeding (mating between close relatives). Inbreeding is problematic for many reasons, such as reducing reproductive success, but it can also reduce immunocompetence and affect red wolf disease resistance. Given that disease can contribute to extinction, evaluating red wolf immunocompetence is important for understanding potential threats to the population. Additionally, climate change appears to be shifting the geographic range of diseases, potentially forcing wild red wolves into contact with new pathogens, which they may or may not be able to protect themselves against.

A female wolf with lice has worn down guard hairs on her shoulders from scratching (see the dull U shape on her upper back?). This could make her more susceptible to secondary infections and exposure during winter.
Photo: K. Brzeski 

To better understand red wolves’ immune abilities, Kristin is measuring the prevalence of disease to see if some wolves are better than others at fighting-off pathogens. Interestingly, Kristin and the Red Wolf Recovery Program have detected high levels of lice in the wolf population. If lice are detected on a wolf, biologists treat the individual before he or she is released, this will hopefully relieve itching and let them go-about their wolfy business. Stay tuned for more results from Kristin’s research!


Kristin working with Red Wolf biologist Chris to treat a male wolf infested with lice.
Photo: USFWS

Monday, March 4, 2013

Adaptive Management Techniques: How coyote sterilization can work towards red wolf recovery efforts

A frequently asked question here at the Red Wolf Recovery Program is “Do red wolves breed with coyotes?” The short answer is yes, they can. Red wolves, gray wolves, domestic dogs, and coyotes are capable of interbreeding and producing fertile offspring.  While social structures and territoriality usually prevent such interbreeding, the combination of a small red wolf population, a large coyote population, and limited space in the recovery area can result in a breakdown of the natural barriers.

  Coyote. Photo by B. Bartel/USFWS.

During the initial site selection process for the red wolf restoration program, the northeastern North Carolina (NENC) Red Wolf Recovery Area was uninhabited by coyotes.  However, coyotes have expanded their range eastward; individuals were observed in NENC beginning in the early-1990s.  As a result, an adaptive management plan was needed to eliminate the threat of hybridization.  Research has demonstrated that sterilized coyotes remain territorial and continue to defend space. It is this concept of holding space that is being applied to manage hybridization by providing managers time, information, and a higher degree of control over the recovery landscape, while simultaneously providing reproductive advantage to the red wolf.   Ultimately, sterilization is a method that allows territorial space to be held until that animal can be replaced naturally or by management actions. Sterile “placeholder” coyotes are then naturally replaced when the larger red wolves displace or kill the coyote.  Occasionally, we may remove a coyote from an area when we have the opportunity to insert a wild or translocated red wolf into that territory or if we have a red wolf dispersing into that area.  

The bottom line is that space is limited in the recovery area. Ideally, within the restored red wolf population in NENC, that space is initially best occupied by breeding pairs of red wolves, non-breeding mixed (red wolf/coyote) pairs, and non-breeding coyote pairs.  By sterilizing coyotes, introgression of non-wolf genes will be controlled and territories will be unavailable for colonization by breeding coyote pairs or red wolf-coyote pairs.  As the red wolf population grows, having space available for dispersing red wolves becomes increasingly important, and this space is provided through natural interspecific competition and/or management actions.

Currently, in addition to the ~65+ radio-collared red wolves, we are actively tracking and monitoring 50 sterilized, placeholder coyotes.  They are captured, processed, and released similar to red wolves (with the additional step of sterilization at a local veterinary hospital).  

 A coyote being processed and fitted for a radio-telemetry collar. 
Photo by B. Bartel/USFWS.