Assessing red wolf conservation based on analyses of habitat suitability and human perception of carnivores
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The red wolf (Canis rufus) is a critically endangered species endemic to the southeastern United States. Currently the world's only wild population resides in a single locale on the Albemarle Peninsula in northeastern North Carolina. Thus, it is imperative to identify potential sites that may be suitable for additional wild populations. We analyzed available data to identify and rank suitable habitat and sites across the historic range of the species. The goal of this study was to examine available data to identify and rank suitable habitat sites across the historic range of the species. Because presence points obtained within the RWRA are not translatable to the varied broader landscape of the southeastern United States, and because scant research was published on the original wild red wolf population, a literature review of red wolf landscape use and suitability analyses was conducted to identify primary habitat metrics for inclusion. We examined how much of the overall landscape of the red wolf historic range is suitable for them based on landscape, prey density, human population, and road type factors. Further, we examined public landscapes that are presumably large enough (>1,000km[2)] to sustain a red wolf population. We found that suitable landscape is available across the historic range, with large areas of suitable lands occurring in National Forests throughout the range of the species. Several National Forests repeatedly ranked high, independent of model choice, and may thus represent appropriate localities for population restoration efforts. However, even though large areas of suitable landscape does exist for the red wolf, it is important to factor in the perception and attitudes of stakeholders. While attitude and perception of specific large carnivore species is prevalent in the literature, we examined how people perceive carnivores as a generalized, basic level. Understanding perceptions of a basic concept aides in building a foundational framework. Public perception of carnivores was assessed from over 1,100 surveys distributed across a spectrum of natural resource and general events in Missouri and Arkansas, two regions that ranked high in habitat suitability. The majority of respondents had positive views based on their expressed opinions and experiences with carnivores. For those who expressed negative view of carnivores, the greatest concerns were in regard to safety of pets and livestock. When asked about specific carnivore species and particularly about the red wolf entering the state via natural recolonization or through a organized reintroduction program, respondents were in favor for both methods, but natural recolonization had a higher percent support. While most responses were positive across the spectrum, logistic regression was utilized to identify predictor variables that correlated with agreement. Additionally, educational outreach programs are a tool commonly used in conservation management as a way for biologists and managers to educate and connect with the public and stakeholders. Immediate and long-term effects of educational outreach were also evaluated from over 560 surveys distributed at carnivore-centered outreach programs. Effects were measured comparing responses before, immediately after, and one month, three months, and five months after the program. Results indicated that educational outreach programs inspired change in and the deepening of previously-held perceptions. It also showed an increase in support for red wolf reintroduction efforts. This research shows that if red wolf reintroduction were to occur, there are large portions of its historic range considered to be suitable habitat. However, it is imperative to assess and be inclusive of local communities. This research shows baseline data from a region deemed as suitable, but could be used as an aide in predicting perceptions of other regions and areas deemed as suitable.
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