Eight red wolves released into the wild in eastern North Carolina in hopes of keeping the species from going extinct

Born in New York, Deven has been released into the wild in eastern North Carolina. “The Wolf Conservation Center is thrilled that red wolf Deven s a part of this vital recovery mission,” said Maggie Howell, executive director of the center. “Deven is now a living, breathing part of the southeastern landscape, and his story will help inspire children and adults alike to care about red wolves and support the active efforts to save them.” (Photo: Wolf Conservation Center)

They’ve waited their whole lives for this moment.

Four adult red wolves were released into a wildlife refuge in eastern North Carolina, and four red wolf pups were fostered to a female in hopes of rebuilding the world’s only wild population of the endangered species. Before the release, there were seven red wolves living in the wild, down from 130 in 2005-06.

The adult wolves came from the Endangered Wolf Center near St. Louis, the Wolf Conservation Center in New York State, and Wolf Haven International in Washington State; the pups originated from the Akron Zoo.

In early May, the wolves were flown by Aero Charter, Lighthawk, and Pilots To The Rescue, which donated their services, and at a significantly reduced rate by Alaska Airlines, to North Carolina. The wolves were then released into the 1.7 million-acre Red Wolf Recovery Area, in Dare and Hyde counties.

According to the Wolf Conservation Center, the wolves were introduced into the wild through a “soft release” process. A habitat surrounded by temporary fencing was installed and animals were placed inside for a length of time providing them an acclimation period to their new environment and time to bond with their mates. When the time is right, the fencing will be opened, allowing the red wolves to confidently enter their new home.

The zoos and conservation centers that house these red wolves manage them in a way that allows them to retain natural instincts that will help them survive in the wild. For example, the wolves aren’t habituated with humans; they are housed in groups and are fed native prey (such as deer) to teach them what to hunt.

Fostering is a creative conservation strategy that takes wolf pups born in a managed care litter and places them within a wild litter. A wild wolf mother will adopt the new additions as her own. The goal of fostering is to increase genetic diversity, according to the Wolf Conservation Center.

The releases are the culmination of years’ of court battles between conservationists and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

In January, U.S. District Court Judge Terrence Boyle required the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to prepare a plan to release captive red wolves into the wild by March 1. The Southern Environmental Law Center, on behalf of Defenders of Wildlife, Animal Welfare Institute and the Red Wolf Coalition, had sued USFWS over its failure to release captive wolves into the wild, a violation of the Endangered Species Act.

“Getting more red wolves in the wild in North Carolina is what we’ve been fighting for, and this is finally a step in the right direction,” said Sierra Weaver, senior attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center, in a prepared statement. “The ultimate question is going to be whether this marks a return to the service’s historic conservation commitment, or whether it is going to take more court orders to keep this up.”

Until the 2015, USFWS successfully managed the wild red wolf population, which had officially gone extinct in 1980. The agency released the first breeding pairs of red wolves into the wilds of northeastern North Carolina in 1987. By 1992, the agency had declared the experiment a success. In 2000, there were as many as 200 red wolves living in and around the official recovery area eastern North Carolina, primarily Dare and Hyde counties — the animals’ historic range.

Yet as the agency began dismantling the recovery program in 2015, the number of red wolves began to drop precipitously. A few powerful landowners in the area had complained to state and federal officials that wolves were straying from their official boundaries onto their property. That same year USFWS announced that it would stop releasing red wolves from captivity into the wild while it reviewed the continued viability of the Red Wolf Recovery Program.

The agency also began allowing private landowners to kill non-problem wolves — also known as a lethal take — and ceased sterilizing coyotes. This is important because coyotes can breed with red wolves, diluting the genetic line, jeopardizing the purity, and thus, the protection of the species.

At the time Judge Boyle ruled that USFWS could not legally authorize lethal takes and had to resume the sterilization program.

In the winter of 2019-20, USFWS did release one red wolf into the Red Wolf Recovery Area, which it transferred from the wild population of six red wolves located in St. Vincent National Wildlife Refuge in Florida, according to the Southern Environmental Law Center.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Association of Zoos and Aquarium American Red Wolf Species Survival Plan also coordinated with conservation groups on the most recent release.

“The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is committed to the recovery of the red wolf,” an agency spokesperson said in November. “We are engaged in recovery efforts and continuing to do so, including updating the Red Wolf Recovery Plan and increasing the captive population to ensure the genetic health of the species and support future reintroductions.”

“The Red Wolf Coalition is grateful to the Species Survival Plan participants that made these releases possible,” said Kim Wheeler, executive director of the Red Wolf Coalition, based in Eastern North Carolina. “Our hope is that these newly released red wolves will flourish in the wild, and that the USFWS Red Wolf Recovery Program will continue to take actions that offer a path forward toward recovery in North Carolina.”

Editorial: NC schools superintendent Catherine Truitt channels Mark Johnson

Superintendent Catherine Truitt

Former Superintendent Mark Johnson

There was a lot of hope for Catherine Truitt. Though an active member of the Republican Party, she said a lot of the right conciliatory things — both during her campaign for state Superintentent of Public Instruction and after getting elected last fall to replace the divisive and way-in-over-his-head Mark Johnson.

Unfortunately, as this morning’s Capitol Broadcasting Company editorial on WRAL.com explains, the pattern has been much less encouraging of late. Her most notable mistake: supporting the dreadful legislative proposal emanating from the General Assembly to micromanage what teachers can and can’t teach around issues of America’s racist history.

After quoting Truitt a few days after her election stating that “our children’s education is too precious to play politics with,” the editorial puts it this way:

It didn’t take long for Truitt to abandon those platitudes and reveal that she’s all about politics and the priorities of the General Assembly’s leadership are her education priorities – not North Carolina’s students or educators.

Her embrace of legislation that is part of a national ideologically motivated campaign seeking to dictate what educators can and cannot teach in their classrooms – and her clear subservience to the legislative leadership – are both disappointing and surprising.

It is now clear her pledge to be an independent voice – untethered by ideological or partisan political pressures – were hollow platitudes. She has revealed herself to be simply a prop to amplify the voices and views of the legislative leadership.

The editorial also notes the embarrassing fact that Truitt didn’t even bother to issue her own statement on the subject, but instead allowed herself to be “quoted” in a press release issued by House Speaker Tim Moore:

It was through a news release from House Speaker Tim Moore, R-Cleveland on May 11, that Truitt said she supported the legislation. “We want to encourage students to think freely and respect differences of opinion while ensuring our classrooms are not promoting ideas contrary to the equality and rights of all,” she said in the GOP release.  “There is no room for divisive rhetoric that condones preferential treatment of any one group over another.”

Those comments were repeated a day later in a House GOP caucus news release crowing about barring what they called “discriminatory concepts” from classrooms after the bill was passed on a 66-48 partisan vote.

The legislation in question, actually seeks to limit discussion and assure any instruction on the nation’s history of slavery and racial discrimination is sterilized to fit a single narrow ideological notion.

The bottom line: Superintendent Truitt is allowing herself to be used as a pawn in a blatantly cynical effort by legislative Republicans to manipulate public opinion in a divisive way on the issue of race, and these efforts have nothing to do with properly educating our children.

Surely, Mark Johnson is nodding somewhere. Click here to read the editorial.

Weekend humor from Celia Rivenbark: Vaccine opponents scatter the herd

Is there anything more predictable than the hue and cry from committed anti-COVID vaxxers that, pandemic or no, they have the right to make their own immunization decisions and it’s none of the government’s business?

(More predictable, that is, than my admittedly shallow wish every Oscar night Frances McDormand would, just once, put a little color on.)

Yes, yes, anti-COVID vaxxers; we hear you. Your body, your choice. Talk about your strange bedfellows…Calm down. No one is going to hold you down and try to dab just a little Papaya Pop by Clinique on your naked lips. Sorry, that was about Frances again. No, what I meant to say was, if you insist on not getting vaccinated, you don’t get to say you’re “waiting for herd immunity to kick in” because, uhhhhhh, without you that will never happen. I mean, frankly, at this point, we’re not all that crazy about y’all coming along but we have no choice. Just sit in the back seat and try not to talk.

Objections to getting jabbed include deep concerns about “just what exactly is in that vaccine.”

This has led to some pretty funny memes about how these “my body is a temple” folk question the vaccine while happily noshing on fast food “chicken” and washing it down with “red” soda containing approximately 4,786 “ingredients.”

If you really want to see the hair-on-fire anti-vaccine crowd get worked up, start talking about “digital health passes” which used to be called “vaccine passports” but that seemed too elitist and apparently called to mind priority gold boarding and liberals in first class with their support parakeets and whatnot. The objection seems to be you can’t have the guvmint having access to your health information. (Note: It already has all that stuff, ya big silly.)

I don’t mind the notion of a digital health pass if it means I no longer have to keep up with my flimsy paper vaccine record. It already has ketchup stains from an unfortunate proximity to a delectable platter of tots. First world problems, amiright?

I’m always amused at how vaccine critics carp about erry little thing with the rollout when you consider how much has been accomplished by the scientists in just one year. It’s almost unfathomable, like Frances McDormand’s prison matron gown. Honestly, what was she THINKING?

This is like whining to God about the degree of lushness in the Garden of Eden: “Frankly, big guy, you could’ve added more mandevilla because pops of color are super important. (Are you listening, Frances??) and all these waterfalls? Too noisy. Honestly, I hate to denigrate your handiwork, but it just seems like you could’ve done more in a WEEK.”

And like the “I don’t know what’s in it” argument, the objection to having privacy compromised by digital health passes seems a tad ironic considering all the bloviating is happening via the super private, absolutely tamper-proof environment of… social media. What could go wrong?

But back, for a sec, to the notion of herd immunity. The thinking here seems to be when those of us who are vaccinated wake up in a few months with a baby arm jutting from our foreheads, the unvaccinated will be juuuuust fine. Also mildly amused because, well, baby arm.

Like I said, without y’all, it’s going to be impossible to get to herd levels. You’re like the bandits hiding behind the rocks in an old Western. You try to steal the cattle, but you shoot your guns, spook them til they scatter and everybody loses.

Now we learn some anti-vaccine folks are buying fake vaccination cards online. Look, it’s one thing to refuse the vaccine because you fear for your health, safety, privacy…whatever. But PRETENDING you’re vaccinated so you can travel, etc.? Man, that’s some serious bottom-feeding right there.

Celia Rivenbark is a NYT-bestselling author and columnist. Write her at [email protected].

NC’s governor lifts most statewide pandemic restrictions

Governor Roy Cooper

After months of reminding the public to mask-up and keep their distance, Governor Roy Cooper announced Friday that North Carolina would be lifting its gathering limits, social distancing requirements, and indoor mask mandate in most circumstances.

The news comes one day after the Centers for Disease Control announced Thursday a shift in federal guidelines, allowing fully-vaccinated Americans to shed their masks both indoors and outdoors.

“This is a big step forward in living our lives the way they were before the pandemic,” Gov. Cooper said.

There will continue to be an indoor mask requirement on public transportation, in childcare settings, schools, camps and in certain public health settings.

Just over 51% of the state is now partially vaccinated  and 45.5% are fully vaccinated against COVID-19.

Click below to listen to the governor explain why they are making this change now:

The governor acknowledged that there are those who are unvaccinated who may use this as an excuse to stop taking safety precautions.

“Get vaccinated now. And if you won’t listen to me, ask your doctor. Do what your doctor tells you,” the governor urged.

Health and Human Services Secretary Mandy Cohen said her department remains committed to its expansion strategy — making the vaccines readily available statewide.

State officials had hoped to lift the restrictions when 66% of North Carolinians had been partially vaccinated.

And while that milestone is still a long ways off, Cohen believes the state can reach its goal with the help of the business community.

HHS Sec, Mandy Cohen

“Some are offering incentives to their own employees to get vaccinated – time off, some are offering bonus pay,” said Dr. Cohen. “We’ve already heard about free donuts, free beer. I really appreciate businesses stepping forward and helping us raise awareness and incentivize folks getting a vaccine.”

Even with today’s shift, NCDHHS is recommending businesses post signage reminding guests to socially distance and wear a face covering if they are not fully vaccinated, and remind employees to self-monitor for symptoms of COVID-19.

It’s worth noting that businesses may choose to continue to require that their customers wear masks.

Masks will still be strongly recommended by the state for everyone at large crowded indoor gatherings such as sporting events and live performances.

And for the time being masks will be mandatory in schools.

“Just starting yesterday (Thursday) our 12-15 years are now eligible. They are starting to get vaccinated, but we know it is going to take some time. That still leaves a large population of our student body unvaccinated.”

Cohen said the state will follow the CDC’s guidance while working to get as many shots in arms as possible.

“This is a virus that has been with us for over a year now. It is going to continue to be with us,” she cautioned.

Click here to read Gov. Cooper’s Executive Order 215 lifting many of the COVID mandates.

State Board of Elections votes to reappoint executive director Karen Brinson Bell to new two-year term

The North Carolina State Board of Elections reappointed executive director Karen Brinson Bell for another two-year term, on a party-line 3–2 vote at a meeting Friday. She has served as the head of the state agency tasked with administering elections and campaign finance compliance since June 1, 2019.

North Carolina experienced historic levels of voter turnout during Brinson Bell’s tenure. More than 5.5 million voted out of 7.3 million registered in the 2020 election, marking a 75% turnout rate. This made North Carolina one of the leading states in voter turnout, according to the United States Elections Project. More than 1.3 million individuals in the state requested absentee ballots and the number of ballots cast by mail exceeded one million, another state record, data from the board show.

Karen Brinson Bell

“It is not lost on me what a privilege and responsibility it is to ensure all North Carolinians are able to exercise their right to vote,” Brinson Bell said in a statement. “I will continue to work with State Board staff and the 100 county boards of elections to conduct secure, accessible, and fair elections for all eligible voters.”

However, Brinson Bell came under attack by Republican legislators at a Senate committee hearing in March over the board’s settlement of a lawsuit brought by voting rights groups. One of the main changes that resulted from the settlement was an extension of the absentee mail-in deadline from three days past Election Day to nine. The board also sought to modify rules last year to eliminate the witness requirement on absentee ballots as a means of preventing the spread of COVID-19, but ultimately reversed the change after a federal judge upheld the requirement.

At the time, Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger said in a statement the board “colluded with the ‘opposing’ side of a lawsuit funded by national Democrats and agreed to a consent order that violates North Carolina election laws.”

As Policy Watch reported previously, state House and Senate Republicans have filed two bills this session that would require House and Senate leaders to sign off on settlements negotiated by the Attorney General. The Senate voted 28-21 along party lines to approve SB 360. The bill was sponsored by the three co-chairs of the Senate Redistricting and Elections Committee, including Sen. Warren Daniel, R-Burke and Sen. Paul Newton, R-Cabarrus, who questioned and pressured Brinson Bell at the committee’s meeting. The House version HB 606 was passed 60-48 in a partisan split vote earlier this month and referred to Senate Rules.

Brinson Bell served as director for the Transylvania County Board of Elections from 2011 to 2015. Prior to that, she was a district elections technician for the board, according to a press release from the board.

Brinson Bell was appointed to the directorship in 2019 in a similar partisan 3-2 vote not long after the board went through a series of restructurings as a result of litigation between Gov. Roy Cooper and the legislature. The five members of the board are appointed by the Governor.

Brinson Bell’s new term will end May 15, 2023.