TrekEast Blog 23 Southeast Coastal Plain in NC/Part One

Lions and Red Wolves and Bears, Why Not? 

Early to mid April, 2011

Photos Courtesy of: Ron Sutherland

Lead Wolf Photo: Larry Master


Were South and North Carolina to merge, Carolina would surely be one of the richest states in America, biologically.  Hydrologically, they are united by shared watersheds, especially the greater Santee and Cape Fear drainage areas, which claim the waters of big parts of both Carolinas.  Their parts of the Southeast Coastal Plain are still surprisingly intact, away from the big cities and beach areas, though the longleaf pine and maritime forest types are badly reduced.  Fortuitously, much of the Carolinas’ coast, like Florida’s Nature Coast, is too swampy or marshy to develop.  Where wetlands have kept development at bay, the maritime and longleaf pine and pocosin forests of the Carolina coastal plain have a vast wealth of species and habitats. 


These Southeast Coastal Plain forests also have North America’s first successfully reintroduced population of the red wolf, Canis rufus, in Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge, Albemarle Peninsula, north coastal North Carolina.  Alligator River also has a dense population of black bears, possibly at risk of isolation from other bear populations.  With rewilding efforts, the region could provide a restored home for the eastern cougar, also known as the panther, whose tracks we found way back in Florida’s Big Cypress Preserve, 2,000 TrekEast miles ago. 


The reasons for restoring top predators, especially wide-ranging carnivores like wolves and bears and cougars, are many and have been more than adequately explained by our wildlands friends Michael Soulé, Reed Noss, John Terborgh, Dave Foreman, Brian Miller, Jim Estes, Cristina Eisenberg, and other naturalists and biologists.  For recent discussions, see John Terborgh’s and Jim Estes’s volume Trophic Cascades and Cristina Eisenberg’s The Wolf’s Tooth, both published by Island Press.


My farewell to South Carolina was in the Wambah Swamp Wilderness of Francis Marion National Forest.  I’d pedaled out of Charleston in a character-building rain (my karma thickens!), and was elated to find sun and a dry campsite only 50 miles later in one of Francis Marion National Forest’s few small Wilderness Areas.  As with Bradwell Bay Wilderness in Apalachicola National Forest, northern Florida, which biologist Jerry Jenkins and I hiked into a month ago, Wambah Swamp Wilderness looked heavily charred, from a recent prescribe fire.  Presumably, it was to burn the Wilderness but not surrounding National Forest land (with the roads hemming in the Wilderness serving as fire-breaks).  Restoring natural fire to forests is good, but it’s hard not to wonder if the Forest Service is aggressively burning some Wilderness Areas not so much for ecological benefits but more because they cannot log designated Wilderness.   I invite readers who know the National Forests of the Southeast better than I do, including Forest Service rangers, to weigh in on the Forest Service’s prescribed burn programs.  Ideally, we would eventually see large parts of the Southeast where forests are intact enough that we can let natural fires burn, rather than suppressing lightning ignitions and setting dormant season burns, as is the management practice in many fragmented forests today.


Anyway, after a nice hike and quiet night there in the Wambah Wilderness, I hit the road again, and, heaven help me, I had to return to the dreaded coastal highway, Rt. 17.   This highway actually goes past a large area of largely intact habitat northeast of Charleston, including Hobcaw Barony and the Tom Yawkee forest sanctuary and various state and federal reserves; but the road itself is big and heavily driven enough to be a barrier to wildlife movement.  I managed to avoid collisions or flats (road shoulder full of shrapnel, of course) long enough to reach a small oasis of safety in an area of thickening development.  From Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, through Wilmington, North Carolina, much of the coast is developed and traffic is heavy.  Myrtle Beach State Park is an island of green sheltering a small remnant of maritime forest and affording visitors sights of big trees and unspoiled beach and sea birds cavorting just off-shore.  The gnarled wind-blown seaside trees and gannets plunging for fish a hundred yards out were highlights of this sanctuary visit for me. 


That trepidation of riding busy coastal roads was much more than compensated for by a few days of exploring reserves in a tenuously intact part of the Southeast Coastal Plain.  In a whirlwind tour skillfully arranged by Peggy Sloan, director of the North Carolina Aquarium at Fort Fisher, Ron Sutherland, Margo McKnight , Peggy, and I visited Holly Shelter Gamelands, Carolina Beach State Park, Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge, and Nature Conservancy’s Nags Head Woods, Green Swamp, and Black River Preserves.  We met fellow conservationists from all three of North Carolina’s aquaria, from the US Fish & Wildlife Service and North Carolina Wildlife Resource Commision, and from The Nature Conservancy (TNC).  We added my father, wife, and stepson, Bob, Denise, and Justin, just in time to run a 5k race on Carolina Beach as a benefit for the Wilmington Aquarium’s conservation programs.  All this left me with heightened hope that large parts of the Southeast Coastal Plain can be permanently protected and reconnected with wild country west and north to form an Eastern Wildway.


In addition to Peggy herself, our guides in Holly Shelter Swamp were Keith Farmer and Jeff Hall, both herpetologists and good all-around naturalists.  Keith works with Peggy at the aquarium.  Jeff is North Carolina’s director of Partners in Amphibian and Reptile Conservation (PARC).  In a quick tour of the state’s 60,000 acre Holly Shelter Gameland, Jeff and Keith found for us a foraging colony of red-cockaded woodpeckers (we saw five birds of this famously endangered species!), singing prairie warblers, Bachman’s sparrows (though we could never find these elusive songsters), southern cricket frogs (with their marble-like clicking), a tadpole of the imperiled gopher frog, and North America’s richest array of carnivorous plants, including yellow and purple pitcher plants, bladderworts, butterworts, and the famous Venus fly-trap. 


The red-cockaded woodpecker (pictured left/wiki photo) is famously dependent on old and connected longleaf pine forests.  The gopher frog is much less well known but similarly vulnerable to habitat fragmentation.  Jeff Hall explained that as frogs go, the gopher is remarkably wide-ranging, and may hop miles from its natal pools.  It thus needs intact uplands as well as ponds.  The gopher frog is yet another species that is imperiled by fragmentation of natural habitats and urgently needs restored biological connections.


From Holly Shelter, Peggy and Margo and I drove north to Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge, where to meet Ron Sutherland.  On a late afternoon paddle to Sawyer Lake, we saw osprey, prothonotary warblers, Atlantic white cedars, bald cypress, and a native frog-bit (a European cousin of this floating aquatic plant has become a noxious invader of lakes in the Northeast).  Driving out of the Refuge, we glimpsed two black bears, each scampering along the planted fields that give them easy forage.  Alligator River Refuge is one of the easiest places in the East to see bears.  They are not generally hunted in the Refuge, so they do not seem to fear people very much.  A fun way to go bear watching would be to cycle the Refuge’s network of gravel roads at dawn or dusk.


After rewarding conversations with Maylon White, director of the North Carolina Aquarium at Roanoke Island, who kindly hosted us for the night, we took a quick walk through The Nature Conservancy’s Nags Head Woods Preserve.  At more than 1,000 acres in size and including a couple hundred acres of old-growth maritime forest, Nags Head Preserve seems a miracle, in an area where an acre of beach-front could cost more than some land trusts’ annual operating budgets.  Thank goodness, TNC was able to preserve this vital, even if somewhat isolated, block of forest before real estate prices sky rocketed.


Then came a tour of The Nature Conservancy’s climate adaptation work in Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge, guided by project director Brian Boutin.  Fortuitously, as I was writing this blog, NPR ran a major story on TNC’s efforts to prevent Albemarle Peninsula natural communities from getting swamped, including a good interview with Brian, who explains the paradoxes and possibilities here better than I ever could.  So I urge readers to listen to this NPR story on climate adaptation  [].  Suffice it to say here, sea level rise combined with extensive ditching, diking and past land clearing have already disrupted the hydrology and ecology of some Albemarle ecosystems.  TNC is replanting cleared areas with cypress trees, which are relatively tolerant of saltwater; reseeding oyster beds off-shore (pictured above left), which buffer beaches and marshes from wave action; and refilling or putting valves (pictured rightin some of the most damaging canals, to slow the intrusion of saltwater.


Ron pointed out, and Brian agreed, that an important complement to these almost literally last ditch adaptation efforts is to simply expand and reconnect protected areas, so that wildlife can move inland and upward as climate warming and sea level rise force changes.  Land acquisition money is scarce at present, unfortunately, but Ron and Brian agreed that conserving lands west and north from Alligator River Refuge to the Roanoke River bottomland forests and the Great Dismal Swamp is a high priority.


Our next host, Michael Morse of the US Fish and Wildlife Service, also agreed on the need to protect these connections before it’s too late.  He told a story that confirmed the importance of wildways: Two young red wolves, brothers, lit out for the territory, a few years back, heading northwest out of Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge.  (Most of the reintroduced wolves wear radio collars, so FWS officials can track their movements.)  They made it well into the Roanoke River bottomland forests before turning back.  One brother established a home territory back on the Refuge.  The other went wandering again.  This time he made it to Great Dismal Swamp, in southeast Virginia.  Unfortunately, the official recovery area for the red wolf does not extend this far, so FWS officials had to recapture the wolf and return it to Alligator River Refuge.  Sadly, this adventurous wolf was later killed, wandering again, as he tried to cross a road.


Having told that story, I’m too sad to write more now. We’ll return to Alligator River and its handsome but isolated red wolves in part two of this rambling argument for rewilding the Southeast Coastal Plain.



For the Wild,





This is why I love the idea of trekking. It is adventurous, lets you experience something that you only had seen on the media or read in the books. The feel that it parts on you is something unexplainable.

Beverly Diamonds

It was really interesting to hear the story on NPR about Alligator River- adaptation work hasn't really been explained by the media very well. To learn more about Brian's work, this project is published as a case study on CAKE at

We're all interested to hear from you, John, about the Red Wolf Recovery Program!

Thanks for all of the thoughtful posts-

Kate (Island Press)

I'm agree with you.
Dr Karen

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