A-State is working on becoming one of the few institutions in the world that breeds red wolves for the purposes of repopulation. The project first began in 2017, following a trip to the Endangered Wolf Center in St. Louis. Dr. Thomas Risch, an animal ecology professor and Chris Thigpen, a temporary biology professor, learned about the state of the red wolf population and became inspired.
Risch is the academic lead for the project, while Thigpen is a co-faculty advisor for the Red Wolves for Red Wolves club. The club works to provide education and outreach surrounding red wolves, and volunteers with the Endangered Wolf Center.
The decline in the red wolf population began when settlers started moving west. Additionally, the government placed federally mandated bounties on large predators, including both red and gray wolves.
The extermination efforts of the gray wolves led to coyotes moving into gray wolf habitats, placing further selection pressures on the red wolf population. An abundance of coyotes meant that the surviving red wolves could not easily find mates, so by the time repopulation efforts began in the 1970s and 1980s, conservationists had only 14 wolves to work with.
The population has since brought up to 241 captive specimens. A-State’s red wolf repopulation center would work to increase the number of captive red wolves, as well as provide awareness and education.
“The idea is to house 12 red wolves, hopefully breeding pairs,” Thigpen said.
The facility could hold up to 30 wolves maximum when the breeding pairs have pups. From there on out, the wolves would be moved to various breeding facilities across the country to combat issues such as inbreeding.
“It’s very carefully laid out to maximize the genetic diversity and also so that the facilities that have the room and the capacity are the ones that are involved in the breeding,” Risch said.
The plan is to break ground this year and for the facility to open in 2023. It will include a gift shop, a veterinary examination area, a specific kitchen for wolf food preparation, as well as a large central room that acts as a viewing patio. It will have six half-acre enclosures with at least one acting as a place where guests can view one of the breeding pairs.
The facility also plans to display red wolf themed art. A sculpture depicting a red wolf mother and her pup has already been donated.
“We’re hopeful that our students and faculty will be a big source of artwork moving forward,” Risch said.
The project has a five million dollar goal, with $575,000 currently raised. There is currently a grant pending that would cover a large amount of the cost. The total amount raised so far has been a result of scholarships and donations from organizations like the Game and Fish Commission, but also from donors with no relation to A-State, such as Weiler Woods for Wildlife.
“They learned about us through our shared interest in red wolf conservation,” Risch said. “So we hope there’s more folks out there that will recognize what we’re doing and want to help us and be part of it.”
The conservation center will additionally act as a place for students from all majors to get involved. Art majors can contribute artwork and use the animals as drawing references. Students interested in working at a zoo or conservation center in the future can intern or volunteer.
“We’re not just looking for biology majors. Any major could benefit from this: art, social media, communications, marketing. It’s really an untapped potential that we can offer to the students,” Thigpen said.
In addition to providing opportunities for students, the facility can act as ecotourism for Jonesboro. Alongside common tourist attractions such as Memphis, Graceland, the Johnny Cash Boyhood Home, the conservation center would provide an opportunity to attract out-of-town visitors. Combined with the fact that the facility will be located near the Crowley’s Ridge Nature Center, it will act as an experience unique to Jonesboro.
Risch and Thigpen want people to come away with three things after a tour of the facility: that the red wolf is the all-American wolf, it is the most endangered canid in the world and that by working together the American red wolf can be saved.
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