TrekEast Blog 24 Southeast Coastal Plain in NC/Part Two

Lions and Red Wolves and Bears

Mid April 2011

Photos Courtesy of:  Ron Sutherland

Lower Wolf Photo: Larry Master

The wolf runs with authority.  When we entered the holding penat Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge and glimpsed our first red wolf, we all gaped in awe.  Though a captive animal, this clearly was a wild, large canid.  The wolf’s demeanor, furtive and elusive in the big pen though it was, suggested the power of a top predator. I held back tears at the thought that we had reduced this glory of evolution to a small, isolated, heavily-managed, radio-collared population.


The red wolf story is one of both tragedy and triumph.  It will fill books, but in a blog one can just say, the tragedy is the near extinction of North America’s original large canid; the triumph is its successful reintroduction to North Carolina’s Albemarle Peninsula.  Less vaunted perhaps than the story of successful reintroduction of the gray wolf to Yellowstone National Park, the US Fish & Wildlife Service actually restored the red wolf  to Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge before restoring its larger cousin to America’s most famous park.  Wolves have had similarly positive top-down regulatory effects in both places (though surprisingly little research has examined the impact of red wolves on coastal ecosystems, in comparison to the volumes that have been written about the return of the gray wolves to western landscapes).  The Fish & Wildlife Service deserves much praise for its effective and non-controversial ( if cautious) approach to recovering, Canis rufus, one of world’s most endangered species.


In conversations with Wildlands Network folks, red wolf recovery leaders David Rabon and Michael Morse of the Fish & Wildlife Service, have explained the successes and challenges of the program.  Coyotes moving into the area and interbreeding have been a challenge, but where red wolf numbers are strong enough, they generally exclude their smaller cousins.  The main long-term challenge for red wolves in the Southeast Coastal Plain is that they don’t have enough of it.  Their natural range would take in most of the Southeast, yet they are limited now to one big peninsula in one state.  Michael said they are looking for other recovery areas, but political challenges and habitat fragmentation make the task difficult. 


We conservationists who assembled that morn to see this special mammal agreed upon an immediate priority.  It is to protect and restore habitat connections from the Albemarle Peninsula west and north through the Roanoke River bottomland forest and to Great Dismal Swamp in southeast Virginia, and south through various wildlife refuges and Croatan National Forest and unto Angola Bay and Holly Shelter and Green Swamp.  Fortunately, the National Wildlife Refuge just west of Alligator River, Pocosin Lakes, now is part of the red wolf’s range; but ultimately much more wild space is needed – especially since rising sea levels could flood much of the wolf’s present recovery range.


Again, I won’t take space here to try to persuade readers of the value of top predators.  Without wolves and bears and cougars, our ecosystems are torn and unraveling.  Most of you are aware of this.  Any who are not, or need to be reminded, please read these books:

Saving Nature’s Legacy, by Reed Noss and Allen Cooperrider

Ghost Bears, by Edward Grumbine

Rewilding North America, by Dave Foreman

Continental Conservation, edited by Michael Soule and John Terborgh

Conservation Biology, the two original classic texts, edited by Michael Soule

The Wolf’s Tooth, by Cristina Eisenberg

Trophic Cascades, edited by Jim Estes and John Terborgh


Before leaving the wolves and returning south along the North Carolina coast, I’ll also note that in addition to all the important ecological arguments for restoring top predators, there are the ethical and aesthetic ones:  It is our duty as a people to give adequate space to all our neighbors; and landscapes with wolves and bears and cougars and jaguars and wolverines and their kind are simply more beautiful and exciting than are tamed lands.


So with images of the wolves’ piercing eyes in our minds, Peggy, Margo, Ron, and I headed south.  We spoke with a group of conservationists at the North Carolina Aquarium at Pine Knoll Shores then returned to Wilmington.  There we joined an Audubon Society group for a great morning of birding at Carolina Beach State Park – a wonderful wild oasis of Cape Fear River shoreline and maritime forest.  Our prize sightings there included a summer tanager and several painted buntings – both birds in such brilliant plumage we felt ourselves in the tropics.  Peggy’s husband Bob Jones astounded those of us less technologically savvy by using his iPhone’s Sibley bird application to assist us in identifying various songbird calls.


My family arrived in time for a fun an evening sail west from Wilmington, generously provided by green architect Jay DeChesere and his wife Heather, an Anti-Gravity Gear Representative . Most of the coast adjacent to the city is developed, but one can fairly quickly get out to marshes and islands that still afford waterfowl and other animals good habitat.  We watched impressed but a bit worried as one strong deer swam bravely toward an offshore island.  We doubted not the deer’s swimming ability but its visibility to speeding motor-boaters.


To gain a better understanding of connections inland, we then visited The Nature Conservancy’s Green Swamp, where The Nature Conservancy’s (TNC’s) project director Dan Ryan served as guide.  Green Swamp is similar to Holly Shelter Swamp in its mix of longleaf pine forest on slightly higher spots and pocosin swamp in low wet areas.  TNC’s 16,000 acre preserve is surely one of the wilder places in the Southeast.  Pocosin forests are too wet and thick with shrubs to be hospitable to people.  Like Holly Shelter, Green Swamp is extraordinarily rich in carnivorous plants.  In just a couple miles of walking on the one public path, we saw pitcher plants (pictured right),the yellow ones blooming brilliantly; Venus fly-traps, diminutive but beautiful; bladderworts, comelier than the name suggests, and sundews, looking the same but likely a different species from what I see on my swamp in the Adirondacks.  Unfortunately, poaching is a problem for plants in this area.  Plant collectors covet especially the famous Venus fly-trap; so TNC is having to heighten patrol efforts to prevent this striking and rare plant from becoming rarer.


Our grand finale for a Southeast Coastal Plain wildlife experience was paddling the Black River, a tributary of the Cape Fear River, whose huge basin extends from North Carolina’s Blue Ridge to the ocean beside Wilmington.  I’d heard of the cypress forests along North Carolina’s Black River because of my mother’s research on old-growth forests years ago (Old-Growth Forest in the East: A Survey, by Mary Byrd Davis, presently on but probably soon to be moved to, since my mother is no longer with us to maintain her website).  Some of the oldest trees in the East live in and along this black water river, at least a few bald cypress behemoths exceeding 1,700 years in age!  Our guides for this magical mystery tour were Bob Roush and Marilyn Meares.  Ron, of course, sought and found numerous snakes – initially to the worry of his paddling partner, my step-son Justin, but increasingly to Justin’s delight.  Ron has started another snake-spotter! 


Others of us were too much in awe of the big trees to pay more than passing heed to the water snakes, though one pair of mating brown water snakes (with their intertwined tails dangling from a tree branch overhanging the river!) did draw our attention. Denise steadied our canoe as I climbed onto the buttress roots of one huge cypress to hug this great being (pictured left)! Where the Black River broadens into a cypress swamp with massive old trees -- prothonotary warblers and vireos singing above, owls hooting nearby, snakes lurking in arboreal recesses – is one of the most primeval places any of us had ever visited.  The Nature Conservancy and North Carolina Coastal Land Trust have protected the old growth and as much adjacent land as possible; but farther down the river loud ugly liquidation logging reminded us that much of the crucial bottomland forest habitat in the Southeast Coastal Plain remains at risk.


To spread the primeval wonder of bottomland hardwood forests, the thick mysterious pocosin forest swamps, and the sunny inviting longleaf pine forests, conservationists throughout the East should make expansion and reconnection of Southeast Coastal Plain habitats a top priority. Maintaining and restoring links between the coast and mountains is critical to securing an Eastern Wildway.  Thus, west we now go, to the North Carolina Sandhills and on to the Uwharries in the Piedmont, in hopes we might find ways wild and wide enough that mountain lions and red wolves and bears might travel safely to and fro.


For the Wild, 




See video


Great posts, John. As a resident and photographer based in Eastern NC, I wanted to thank you for bringing some much needed attention to the Red Wolf Recovery Program. Looking forward to your future posts! Wishing you safe travels!

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