Orchids, Snails, And Wolves: The Ongoing Benefit Of The Endangered Species Act
On December 28, 2023, the Endangered Species Act (ESA) turned 50 years old. It was enacted in 1973 with almost unanimous support in Congress, with a goal to save plants and animals from extinction. It’s considered one of the most important environmental policies in US history, and it transformed conservation. It may have even helped save one of your favorite critters, like humpback whales, bald eagles, manatees, and grizzly bears.
To mark the ESA’s 50th birthday, we’re looking at how it works, how successful it’s been, and what its future may look like. Ira starts off by talking with Dr. Judy Che-Castaldo, a biologist for the US Fish and Wildlife Service’s Branch of Species Status Assessment Science Support*.
Then, we head to the extinction capital of the world: Hawai‘i. Kāhuli, also known as Hawaiian land snails, live all over the Hawaiian islands. At one point, around 750 species existed, but more than half have gone extinct. Ira talks with two conservationists dedicated to saving the snails: Dr. David Sischo, coordinator of the Hawai‘i Snail Extinction Prevention Program, and Keahi Bustamente, Maui Nui field coordinator for the program.
We’ll also talk about the role of the Endangered Species Act in protecting a group of at-risk plants: orchids. Eight species of orchid are recognized as endangered under the ESA—and all of the world’s approximately 30,000 species are considered threatened, and entitled to trade restrictions. Ira speaks with Dr. Matthew Pace, orchid scientist and assistant curator of the Steere Herbarium at the New York Botanical Garden, about threats to orchid conservation.
And finally, Ira speaks with Dr. Ron Sutherland, chief scientist at the Wildlands Network in Durham, North Carolina. Sutherland has an extensive background in red wolf conservation in the southeastern United States.
Red wolves are one of the most endangered mammals in the world, with only an estimated 20 living in the wild and 267 in captivity. They discuss the dramatic swings in federal conservation efforts for red wolves, and why Sutherland isn’t ready to give up on this endangered species.
*Dr. Che-Castaldo is not speaking on behalf of the US Fish and Wildlife Service, and her views do not reflect those of the Service.
Dr. Judy Che-Castaldo is a biologist in the Branch of Species Status Assessment Science Support of the US Fish and Wildlife Service in Madison, Wisconsin.
Dr. David Sischo is coordinator of the Snail Extinction Prevention Program in Honolulu, Hawaii.
Keahi Bustamente is the Maui Nui field coordinator for the Snail Extinction Prevention Program in Maui, Hawaii.
Dr. Matthew Pace is assistant curator of the Steere Herbarium of the New York Botanical Garden in Bronx, New York.
Dr. Ron Sutherland is chief scientist for the Wildlands Network in Durham, North Carolina.
IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. Right before the new year, on December 28, the Endangered Species Act turned 50 years old. It went into law in 1973 with almost unanimous support in Congress. I’m sure something hard to believe today could happen.
And it had as its goal to save plants and animals from extinction. It’s been revered as one of the most important environmental policies in US history, and it transformed conservation, maybe even helped save some of your favorite critters like humpback whales, bald eagles, manatees, grizzly bears. So this hour, we’re looking back at 50 years of the ESA, how it works, how successful it’s been, and what the future of the ESA may look like.
Joining me is Dr. Judy Che-Castaldo, biologist for the US Fish and Wildlife Service’s branch of Species Status Assessment Science Support, joining me from Madison, Wisconsin. And she’s not speaking as a spokesperson for the US Fish and Wildlife Service. Welcome to Science Friday.
JUDY CASTALDO: Thanks for having me.
IRA FLATOW: Let’s talk about how critical the Endangered Species Act is to conservation. What does it allow scientists to do?
JUDY CASTALDO: Well, the stated purpose of the act is to provide a means to conserve threatened and endangered species, as well as the ecosystems upon which they depend. So that’s a really clear and powerful statement. And that is what it allows us to do.
IRA FLATOW: So it’s actually made a law, right, out of conserving species.
JUDY CASTALDO: Yes.
IRA FLATOW: And how many species are actually listed on it at the present time?
JUDY CASTALDO: So that number changes all the time. Currently, it’s over 2,300.
IRA FLATOW: Over 2,300?
JUDY CASTALDO: Uh-huh. Yeah.
IRA FLATOW: If it gets longer, I would suppose that’s a bad thing.
JUDY CASTALDO: Not necessarily. That means more species are protected. It just fluctuates over time for many, many different reasons.
Sometimes, species change. They’re no longer considered a species. Or some species may be split into multiple species. So for many various reasons, that number fluctuates a lot.
IRA FLATOW: And is it considered a very successful act?
JUDY CASTALDO: Yes. So there are multiple ways to measure the success of the act. And depending on how you measure it, the answer is going to be different.
So one of the goals of the act is to recover the listed species to the point where they no longer need the protections of the act and can be de-listed. And in that sense, relatively few species have been de-listed due to recovery. On the other hand, another goal of the act is to also– to avoid extinctions. And in that sense, the act has actually been very successful because very few listed species have gone extinct.
IRA FLATOW: Wow. That is– yeah.
JUDY CASTALDO: Yes. So actually, 99% of the listed species have been prevented from going extinct.
IRA FLATOW: 99%?
JUDY CASTALDO: Yeah. Pretty good.
IRA FLATOW: Yeah. Let’s get into some of the machinations, some of the weeds, about the act. Let’s say I have an imaginary three-headed frog, and I think it deserves federal protections, all right? Give me the process involved of getting that frog listed.
JUDY CASTALDO: Anybody can petition for a species to be listed. And so once a species is petitioned, the Services, they have to consider that species, see whether they are warranted for the protections of the act. That’s the first step.
IRA FLATOW: Mhm. And is that part of your job, in analyzing that info?
JUDY CASTALDO: Yes. Exactly. So I do the part where, once it passes the petition process, there’s a 90-day finding where we say that, yes, there does seem to be enough information that suggests that the species may warrant listing. And then it gets into the full consideration.
IRA FLATOW: Now, let’s move forward and see what happens. Because once my three-headed frog is listed, what kinds of protections does it get?
JUDY CASTALDO: The act is actually pretty unique, in that it also requires people to work actively to recover threatened and endangered species. So when a species is listed, there are generally two types of actions that are triggered. Protective measures and recovery actions.
So for protective measures, that mainly includes prohibiting take and what are called inter-agency consultations. So “take” is basically hurting or attempting to hurt a species in any way. And so that’s prohibited. And that’s pretty straightforward. For inter-agency consultations– so all federal agencies are required by the act to help conserve the listed species. And so any time that an agency proposes to do a project that may affect a listed species, anything like putting up a dam, they have to consult with the managing agency.
IRA FLATOW: Mm. And does somebody have to keep track of them once they’re on the list?
JUDY CASTALDO: Yes. Oh, for sure. Yes. So we have those protective measures, which are that prohibiting take and inter-agency consultations.
But then the other type of actions is recovery actions, and that means coming up with a plan for actually how to bring back the species to a recovered state, defining what that recover state looks like for each species because that will look different. Also, designating critical habitat. And finally, checking on the species every five years or so to see if it’s improving or not.
IRA FLATOW: So let’s look ahead for the next 50 years. What would be a successful 50 years from now?
JUDY CASTALDO: I’m imagining that there will still be a lot of work to do in 50 years, even if we are very successful in the next few years, if that makes sense.
IRA FLATOW: Have you analyzed at all how climate change might speed up the loss of species?
JUDY CASTALDO: Oh, yeah. Not me personally, but a lot of research is out there about how climate change is accelerating the rates of species loss and biodiversity loss around the world. Yeah. I think that will definitely impact the workload of evaluating which species warrant protections.
IRA FLATOW: Yeah. That’s part of that whole “50 years from now,” isn’t it?
JUDY CASTALDO: Oh, yes. Yeah. And beyond. For sure.
IRA FLATOW: Yeah. Well, thank you very much for enlightening us today.
JUDY CASTALDO: Yeah. Thank you so much for having me. This was great.
IRA FLATOW: Dr. Judy Che-Castaldo, biologist for the US Fish and Wildlife Services branch of Species Status Assessment Science Support. She was joining us from Madison, Wisconsin. Continuing our conversation on the 50th anniversary of the Endangered Species Act, we’re headed to the extinction capital of the world, Hawaii, did you know that, to meet Kahuli, also called Hawaiian land snails. These snails have beautiful, stripy, cone-shaped shells, and they come in an array of colors.
There used to be around 750 species of Kahulis scattered around the Hawaiian islands, but more than half have gone extinct. So what’s it going to take to save the snails? Let’s find out. Joining me are Dr. David Sischo, coordinator of Hawaii’s Snail Extinction Prevention Program based in Honolulu, Hawaii, and Keahi Bustamente, Maui Nui field coordinator for the program, based in Maui, Hawaii. Welcome to Science Friday.
DAVID SISCHO: Aloha, Ira. Honored to be here.
KEAHI BUSTAMENTE: Hello, Ira.
IRA FLATOW: Let me start with you, David. Why is Hawaii the extinction capital of the world?
DAVID SISCHO: That’s a great question. And Hawaii is one of the most isolated land masses on Earth. And so a lot of the animals that made it out here evolved without a lot of the pathogens and other animals that are usually on continental land masses, like mammals and reptiles. And so what made it out here evolved unique niches. And when introduced species got here, which we have very many of them, the animals here are just not well-adapted to the kinds of predators that are now here.
IRA FLATOW: And so how dire, then, is the situation with Kahuli?
DAVID SISCHO: It’s bad. The Hawaiian islands had over 750 species. Just to give you an idea, that’s the same number of species that exist in the continental North America. And Hawaii is 117 hundredth the land area of North America.
And so we had just this incredible diversity here. About half of that is gone already. And we’re on the verge of losing another 100 species this decade without significant conservation intervention.
IRA FLATOW: Wow. That really is something. Keahi, is that because of environmental factors? Or do people love the shells and collect them? What’s the reason for this?
KEAHI BUSTAMENTE: It’s mostly to do with environmental factors. But at one time it was a trend to go into the mountains and collect snails, kind of like collecting baseball cards.
IRA FLATOW: Oh, really?
KEAHI BUSTAMENTE: Yeah.
IRA FLATOW: Describe the snail for me. I’d like to know why they were so interesting.
KEAHI BUSTAMENTE: Oh, man. The most incredible colors and shapes you’ve ever seen. It’s common for people to see seashells, I think, and be just blown away by their beauty. But these snails are on land and have just the same amount of beauty and elegance to their shells.
So for that very reason, it became a popular pastime time and something that the Native people really, really revered. And we embodied them with our gods. They were known to be body forms of demigods. They were kind of like the royalty of the forest.
IRA FLATOW: Wow.
KEAHI BUSTAMENTE: That’s the kind of reverence that we had for them.
IRA FLATOW: And that’s one of the reasons why, I would imagine, it’s so awful to hear that they’re disappearing.
DAVID SISCHO: It is. It’s really sad. And it’s heartbreaking for a Native person who has been able to experience them. They are so rare, and very, very few Native people have been able to experience them, or even know that they exist and that they’re going extinct.
IRA FLATOW: Wow. Now that I’ve heard this, I’m really interested in your strategies to save them. Fill me in on that.
KEAHI BUSTAMENTE: It’s emergency 911. These things are going extinct really fast. And so most of what we’re doing is trying to intervene in extinction and stabilize populations. And so that includes a large captive rearing program.
So we– collectively between our laboratory and other partner laboratories that are also rearing snails, we have over 60 species in captivity. Many of them no longer have wild counterparts, so they’re extinct in the wild. And so we’re getting them into the lab. We’re getting their numbers up. And then we’re building these protected areas, and we’re getting them back out onto the landscape. But honestly, our efforts for the next decade will be to just try and keep these animals on Earth.
IRA FLATOW: How easy are they to breed? Do you have to go out and find them, bring them back to the lab, and breed them, Keahi? How easy is that?
KEAHI BUSTAMENTE: Oh, it is not easy, Ira. Really difficult. Most of them are in really, really remote areas at the top of our mountains. Really rugged terrain.
A lot of times, we need to access these areas with helicopters and stay there for a week at a time, camping in the rainforests and pushing through miles of dense vegetation across ravines, and gulches, and streams. Yeah. It is not easy to find these things, and probably one of the most difficult– really “needle in the haystack” kind of work.
IRA FLATOW: And so once you get them into your little laboratory habitat, how easy is it to breed them?
KEAHI BUSTAMENTE: Many of the species we’re working with have really bizarre life histories. So they can live close to 20 years. They take 5 years to reach maturity.
And once they’re mature, they usually only give birth to one to seven offspring per year. So that’s much different than a common garden snail, which can lay thousands of eggs over its short life span. So many of the snails are like dealing with a long lived-bird or mammal.
And the laboratory is– it’s kind of like an emergency room. You walk in, and all the animals are in environmental chambers which are mimicking the conditions in the wild, which are usually upper elevation areas that are cooler and more humid. So it really feels like an ER. And it’s a decades-long commitment to getting these animals through to a point where we could put them back into the wild.
IRA FLATOW: That’s amazing. So I’d ask, then, given all these difficulties, how well are your strategies working here for saving them and getting them back in the wild?
KEAHI BUSTAMENTE: Well, our strategies are working really well for the species that we’re bringing in, for the most part. The problem is the logistics of scaling up. We’ve got 100 species across five islands that are going extinct.
And we’re a really small team. It’s not just happening in one area, on one island, on one forest reserve. It’s across private and public lands. We have the tools and the techniques to do what we need to do, but it’s the capacity issue that’s the problem.
IRA FLATOW: So you’re not really trying to get the snails off the endangered species list. You just want to just keep them around, right?
KEAHI BUSTAMENTE: Yeah. We’re trying to keep them on Earth at this point. And I don’t think that they will be recovered in my lifetime, for sure. I think this will be a multi-generational tag team effort.
IRA FLATOW: We’ve been talking about 50 years of the Endangered Species Act. How does the act affect your work?
KEAHI BUSTAMENTE: There are 44 species listed on the US Endangered Species Act, 44 species of snail. About 13 or 14 of those are still extant, or are still around. There’s many species that are not listed that are extinct in the wild, or will be very, very soon, that are not even listed.
But the US Endangered Species Act has been crucial for snail conservation. Many of the species we have in captivity are around because of the funding that we received from the US Fish and Wildlife Service, and part of that comes from the US Endangered Species Act. And so without the funding, we couldn’t do what we do.
IRA FLATOW: Now, I know that the governor of Hawaii proclaimed last year, 2023, as the Year of Kahuli. What was that like, Keahi? How did that affect things and people?
KEAHI BUSTAMENTE: Well, it definitely brought more attention just to the public. People were exposed to the snails that maybe wouldn’t have without it being the Year of the Kahuli. It also brought some recognition to some of the endemic snails on each island, where people were able to vote for the snail that they wanted to be representing their island. So now there’s a state snail for each island. So I was really pleased to be around for something like that. And hopefully we’ll see more Years of the Kahuli to come.
IRA FLATOW: Yeah. Well, I want to thank you for– both of you for what you’re doing, and thank you for taking time to be with us today. And good luck to you in the future.
DAVID SISCHO: Thank you, Ira.
KEAHI BUSTAMENTE: Thank you, Ira. Mahalo.
IRA FLATOW: Dr. David Sischo, coordinator of the Hawaii Snail Extinction Prevention Program based in Honolulu, and Keahi Bustamente, Maui Nui field coordinator for the program based in Maui, Hawaii. To see photos of these beautiful snails, and they are really gorgeous, visit sciencefriday.com/endangered. After the break, we highlight two more endangered species, orchids and red wolves. Stick with us.
This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. Continuing our look at 50 years of the Endangered Species Act and what it has done for conservation. Most of the time, when you say the words “endangered species,” I think people envision some iconic animal like a rhino, right? But plants can be endangered also.
And one of the poster organisms for endangered plants around the world are the orchids. And I have a special fondness for orchids, as I raise them right there on my windowsill. And yes, they will grow there.
Joining me now to talk about how orchids fit into the Endangered Species Act conversation is Dr. Matthew Pace. He’s an orchid researcher and assistant curator of the Steere Herbarium at the famous New York Botanical Garden. Welcome to Science Friday.
MATTHEW PACE: Thank you so much, Ira. It’s a real pleasure to speak with you today.
IRA FLATOW: People usually think of orchids as tropical species. But there are orchids in many places in the US and other non-tropical climes. Isn’t that correct?
MATTHEW PACE: Yes. Absolutely. Orchids can be found from Arctic Circle all the way down to the very tip of Chile. Basically, any environment you can imagine, except for the most extreme parts of the Sahara desert, have orchids. And actually, some of the orchids that I study, the genus spiranthes, are found high in the Arctic Circle and into Siberia. They’re a really, really amazingly diverse group of organisms.
IRA FLATOW: Yeah. And I know there are, what, almost 30,000 species of orchids around the world. How endangered are these species if there are so many of them?
MATTHEW PACE: Yeah. That’s an excellent question. And one of the things I love about science is that there are always new questions to ask. And sometimes, we just don’t know the answers yet. So of those about 30,000 species of orchids, only about 7% have been assessed in terms of their conservation risk. So that’s a really small number.
IRA FLATOW: Really?
MATTHEW PACE: Yeah. And one of the major issues about threats for orchid conservation is actually just a lack of information. And that’s why institutions like the New York Botanical Garden are so important because we provide the raw data that actually help make these conservation assessments.
IRA FLATOW: Well, let’s talk about the main threats to them. Why are orchids threatened?
MATTHEW PACE: Yeah. Absolutely. So there’s three main threats, as I see it. Particularly here in North America, deer herbivory is a major issue, particularly in the Northeast.
Historically, wolves, bears, cougars would prey on deer. Most of those predators have been eliminated from the landscape, and so deer just basically eat everything. Another major conservation issue is habitat destruction and land use.
Many orchids in the eastern US and the southeastern US actually require fire to maintain their landscapes. They occur in these fire-dominated grasslands where, when you eliminate fire from the habitat, woody shrubs and other plants quickly encroach and basically shade the orchids out. And so when you get housing developments in otherwise wild areas, we stop allowing fires that allows landscape change to occur, and then the orchids just drop out.
IRA FLATOW: Wow. Who knew?
MATTHEW PACE: Yeah.
IRA FLATOW: You knew, but–
I’m certain that most of our audience didn’t know that.
MATTHEW PACE: [LAUGHS]
IRA FLATOW: Tell me about your research into orchids and how it connects to conservation.
MATTHEW PACE: Absolutely. So I primarily study terrestrial North temperate species of orchids. And I actually led a major NSF-funded digitization program. We were the lead institution amongst 15 other herbaria and colleges, where we actually digitized our preserved herbarium collections, so these are dried, pressed plants in our collection, and made all this data freely available for anyone.
And again, this is providing the raw data for over 2 million specimen records to help make conservation assessments. And then a lot of my own personal research is based on taxonomy and systematics, so actually figuring out what species do we have in front of us. And that’s really important because you can’t conserve something unless you have a name for it. And if you’re actually confusing two different species, that could have major consequences if you’re trying to develop an ex-situ conservation program, where you might accidentally be interbreeding two different species that are evolutionarily distinct.
IRA FLATOW: Hmm. We’ve been talking about 50 years of the Endangered Species Act. Have there been any successes related to orchid conservation?
MATTHEW PACE: Yes. With the Endangered Species Act– eight species of orchids are currently listed on the endangered species list. Three of them are in the genus spiranthes, and five of them are platanthera.
Probably the biggest success story is platanthera integralabia, the fringeless bog orchid. It’s primarily restricted to just a few sites in Tennessee, Kentucky, Alabama area. And by listing that species, it’s really drawn attention to its conservation needs. And there’s been an ex-situ conservation program established for that species, and a lot of monitoring has gone into that species. That’s been probably the biggest success story, actually finding new populations that we didn’t know existed and helping to conserve them.
IRA FLATOW: You said a phrase like “ex-situ” a couple of times, right?
MATTHEW PACE: Yes.
IRA FLATOW: Explain that, please, what that is.
MATTHEW PACE: Sure. So “ex-situ conservation” means “conservation in cultivation.” So at an institution like the New York Botanical Garden, these are plants that we’ve taken from the wild with, of course, proper permitting, to establish, basically, a reservoir of diversity in our botanical garden, with the ultimate goal of then increasing the stock of that species and then returning it to the wild. This is done with tigers, basically, any endangered animal, as well as endangered plants.
IRA FLATOW: Are there really orchid hunters like we read about?
MATTHEW PACE: Yes. Unfortunately, there are. And that’s one of the challenges sometimes of working in this group. Orchids are amazing. They’re beautiful. They’re a really great group to talk to the general public. But sometimes, you do have to honestly be a little bit strategic in who you talk to, particularly when you’re sharing locations of species.
IRA FLATOW: We think of zoological places where animals are taken that might be endangered. Do the botanical gardens around the country also serve as reservoirs or places of refuge?
MATTHEW PACE: So yes. Absolutely. In fact, here at the New York Botanical Garden, we serve as the ultimate depository for illegally-harvested plants that come through JFK Airport. So if someone is illegally smuggling orchids, trying to put them in their suitcase, the customs inspectors will hopefully find those orchids. And if they are alive, they’ll send them here to our living collections to hopefully resuscitate them and ensure they don’t die.
IRA FLATOW: Are you hopeful about the endangered status of the orchids in general?
MATTHEW PACE: I am. A lot of the stories that you hear can be very disheartening. But at the end of the day, a listing on the Endangered Species Act means that species is getting attention. It means resources can be directed towards it. It means habitat can be preserved.
It means that researchers like myself can start to ask questions about how we might actually save those species. So yeah, there’s a lot of work to do. But I am hopeful. And I think as a researcher, I have to be hopeful in order to continue doing my job.
IRA FLATOW: And thank you for the job that you do, and thanks everybody at the New York Botanical Garden, a place I frequently go to and enjoy. And have a happy new year.
MATTHEW PACE: Thank you very much. Happy New Year to you as well.
IRA FLATOW: Dr. Matthew Pace is an orchid researcher and assistant curator of the Steere Herbarium at the New York Botanical Garden in the Bronx, New York. And now to wrap up our conversation about the Endangered Species Act, we’re going to turn to one of the most endangered mammals in the world, the red wolf. Red wolves are native to the eastern US, but decades of human encroachment has led to these carnivores falling to critical population levels.
It’s estimated that only 20, only 20, are living in the wild. And against all odds, there’s been some success in conservation efforts for red wolves. Joining me to talk about that is Dr. Ron Sutherland, chief scientist for the Wildlands Network based in Durham, North Carolina. Welcome to Science Friday.
RON SUTHERLAND: Thanks, Ira. It’s great to be here.
IRA FLATOW: Who knew? I guess you did. Only 20 red wolves are thought to be living in the wild? Wow. How did they get so low, that population?
RON SUTHERLAND: It’s really tragic because actually, the population grew really well. The wolves were reintroduced to North Carolina in 1987, and then the population grew from about eight initial animals up to 120 animals by 2012. And then right in 2012, they got hit by this devastating one-two punch where there was a sudden increase in gunshot mortality that was tied to people spreading misinformation about the wolves, and the idea that the wolves were causing the greatest wildlife disaster in the history of North Carolina by eating all the other wildlife, like the deer.
And then also, at the same time, the federal government suddenly lost interest in promulgating their red wolf program, and so they stopped releasing wolves from captivity right at the hour of the greatest need of the red wolf. And so the population plummeted. Around 2014 to 2020, it really dropped down. And in fact, in 2020, there were only eight confirmed animals with working radio collars on the ground.
IRA FLATOW: Ron, tell me how the population of red wolves affects other animals.
RON SUTHERLAND: Sure. So we suspect that they can help control deer populations, and that can prevent over-browsing on a lot of native wildflowers that are being hammered across the entire East Coast, as a lot of gardeners could tell you. But we also think that they are essential for helping control and regulate populations of what are called “mesopredators,” and those are things like raccoons and opossums.
Those guys, when they get overabundant, they actually can really hit the populations of songbirds, especially species that nest on the ground like bobwhite quail. We noticed when we were doing our camera work out at Alligator River that all the places where the wolves were, there was also these really abundant populations of quail calling, which is significant because the quail are practically endangered across much of the Southeast. And one of the reasons people think that is there’s too many of these raccoons and other nest predators out there.
But that’s not true at Alligator River. And I think the big fields there at the refuge are just not a safe place anymore. Because of the wolves, they’re not safe for the raccoons to be wandering around looking for quail eggs. And so that explains why during our quail surveys, we were hearing so many quail that my interns could barely keep up.
IRA FLATOW: Mhm. And you have, what, over 250 red wolves living in captivity? Is the goal to put them back into the wild?
RON SUTHERLAND: Yeah. So the red wolf is a prime example, actually, of a species where zoos and wildlife centers have played an essential role in recovering an endangered species and preventing extinction in the first place. Like the black-footed ferret, the California condor, the decision was made to catch all the few remaining red wolves back in the ’70s, bring them into captivity. And they actually declared the red wolf extinct in the wild in 1980.
And then it was returned by 1987 because it turns out, the red wolf actually did breed pretty well in zoos. And we’re up to, as you say, 270 captive animals. 40 different captive breeding facilities around the country. And so it’s going well.
The challenge is, of course, that the Endangered Species Act mandates that we recover the species in the wild. And I think what a lot of people don’t know is that there’s actually some evidence that stay– wild species that stay in captivity for too many generations, they can actually suffer from some interesting evolutionary impacts of that. And so the challenge is to get the red wolf back in the wild very soon.
IRA FLATOW: Yeah. Sounds like it might be. It’s my understanding that there’s some controversy about red wolf genetics, that some people think they really aren’t a legitimate species. Tell me about that.
RON SUTHERLAND: Yeah. So the red wolf, maybe more than any other endangered species that I can think of, has actually borne the brunt of being the target a lot of interesting molecular genetic studies. And really, as each new technique and tool came out in the ’90s, 2000s, there was always– there was a new paper about red wolves, and it often conflicted with the previous story. And I think the punch line–
Eventually, we got to the point where Congress actually asked the Fish and Wildlife Service to commission the National Academy of Sciences to study the question, is the red wolf a real species. And they came back and said, yes. So really, an august body of evolutionary biologists and geneticists said, yeah, it’s pretty– it’s unique enough to be considered a species. And they also said, maybe don’t ask us about the origins because it’s really hard to tell. And that’s one of the take-homes, is that if you destroy 99.99% of a species, it’s hard to go back and really understand the origins of that species using genetic techniques.
IRA FLATOW: Yeah. So did this confusion affect conservation efforts at all for the red wolves?
RON SUTHERLAND: It did. It was one of the reasons, I think, why the Fish and Wildlife Service was able to convince people that it was maybe OK to de-emphasize the red wolf conservation program during that 2015 to 2020 window. There was the confusion out there. Is the red wolf real? And I’m hoping that we’ve moved past that now with that National Academy report that came out, and then we can actually get back to focusing on saving what is clearly a unique taxon.
IRA FLATOW: Yeah. As you said, the Fish and Wildlife Service essentially pulled the plug on their efforts to conserve red wolves. And they have since ramped the program back up, right? How did that lack of federal support, though, affect conservation during that time period?
RON SUTHERLAND: Yeah. Well, let me start by re-emphasizing what you said. The Biden administration has actually done a remarkable job of turning the ship around for red wolves, reinvesting in the success of the program.
They’ve released close to 30 wolves over the last couple years from captivity finally again, and they’ve increased the transparency of the program. And so they’re doing what they can to rebuild things. But they’re literally almost starting from scratch–
IRA FLATOW: Huh.
RON SUTHERLAND: –which is really frustrating. Because, yeah, during that time period, we basically lost most of the wolves. Over 100 wolves just disappeared from the landscape.
IRA FLATOW: And what was the biggest factor in them disappearing? Were people shooting them, or hunting them, or what?
RON SUTHERLAND: A lot of it was to a bump in illegal gunshot mortality. And so I think that was a big part of it. There was some trapping, even some– unfortunately, some poisoning with pesticides and things. Just horrible things like that.
But actually– the truth is, there’s actually about 65 wolves disappeared. If you look at the official population chart from the Fish and Wildlife Service in 2015-2016, they just disappeared from the landscape, and there’s no official record of what happened to them. I really doubt that they went on to live happy, long lives in the wild. I think they were also gunned down.
IRA FLATOW: So what are the biggest challenges, then, in getting back the population and getting where you would like them to be?
RON SUTHERLAND: Well, I think we– we can think about it in terms of, what are the opportunities now to get these wolves back on the ground. And I think one of the key ones is that we can rebuild landowner tolerance with a robust incentives program. I’d really like to see Congress step in and fund a program that would reward the landowners in eastern North Carolina for being the ones to host this endangered species program that the rest of the country really wants to have happen. We really want to save–
IRA FLATOW: Let me see if I can parse that. When you say, “rebuild landowner tolerance,” to me, that means, don’t shoot them anymore.
RON SUTHERLAND: Exactly.
IRA FLATOW: Is that right?
RON SUTHERLAND: Yeah.
IRA FLATOW: Yeah.
RON SUTHERLAND: And–
IRA FLATOW: That’s a euphemism for, “Don’t kill them.”
RON SUTHERLAND: Don’t kill them. Yeah. The red wolf, I think, can survive if we stop shooting them. And if we call it “pay for presence”– if you call it a red wolf leasing program, where you’re leasing farmlands and forest lands to have people host the red wolves– I think either way, there’s a lot of room to make that happen in a way that’s really going to rebuild trust.
IRA FLATOW: Thanks for taking time to be with us today. Dr. Ron Sutherland, chief scientist for the Wildlands Network based in Durham, North Carolina.
RON SUTHERLAND: Thanks very much.
IRA FLATOW: To see photos of the critters and the plants that we’ve talked about, visit sciencefriday.com/endangered.