When Arkansas State University changed its mascot from the Indians to the Red Wolves in 2008, the school became a part of an effort to save one of the most endangered species in the U.S. There are an estimated 241 red wolves in existence and the International Union of Conservation lists them as “critically endangered.”
A project in Jonesboro to aid this ailing species has taken significant steps in recent months. At least $575,000 has been pledged towards an overall goal of $5 million. The money will be used to build the American Red Wolf Conservation and Research Center (ARWCRC) at Craighead Forest Park in Jonesboro.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) announced in September 2016 that the captive population must be doubled prior to consideration of a new recovery effort in the wild.
The red wolf was listed in 1967 as endangered under the federal Endangered Species Preservation Act. The first red wolf captive breeding program was created in 1969 at the Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium in Tacoma, Wash., with the first litter of pups not born until 1977, according to the FWS. In 1980, the red wolf was declared biologically extinct in the wild.
Reintroducing red wolves into the wild began in 1986 at the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge in eastern North Carolina, with the population peaking at an estimated 130 wolves in 2006. The red wolf was also reintroduced into the wild in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in 1993, but the program ended in 1998 because of lack of food resources for the wolf. The reintroduction program was halted in 2015 to gather “additional science and research into the feasibility of species’ recovery,” according to FWS.
Donations towards the project in Jonesboro include:
• A $300,000 grant from Jonesboro Advertising & Promotion Commission that will be used for city park improvements associated with the project, which will help meet the A&P mission of promoting tourism and producing a positive impact on Jonesboro businesses.
• Two grants totaling $158,000 funded by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS) and awarded by the Conservation Centers for Species Survival for construction costs associated with new fence enclosures, which will help the agency achieve its goal of doubling the nation’s red wolf population.
• Private gifts of $117,000, including a $50,000 contribution by national wildlife conservation leaders Dale Weiler and Loti Woods of Weiler Woods for Wildlife in Tryon, N.C., and a $50,000 gift by ASU Distinguished Alumnus John Bobango and his wife, Lisa.
Additionally, Weiler Woods for Wildlife recently donated its original “Just Settling In” sculpture, which has been on loan and on display at Bradbury Art Museum, to A-State for permanent display.
The ARWCRC will escalate ASU’s role in education, preservation and population growth for the American red wolf, which is the most critically endangered wolf in the world. Of the 241 red wolves alive, fewer than 17 are known to be in the wild in North Carolina.
“Our vision for this facility is lofty, and we’re grateful for these generous early commitments of support to help us move forward,” said Dr. Tom Risch, vice provost of research and technology transfer at ASU, who is involved in national red wolf conservation efforts. “This is an extraordinary undertaking not only for the benefit of national red wolf conservation, but also for students and faculty who want to embrace this opportunity for wildlife ecology education and research.”
Preliminary plans, subject to fundraising efforts, call for a 5,600-square-foot education and operations facility and six highly secured fence enclosures on 10 acres to oversee at least 12 red wolves from the existing population managed by the national Red Wolf Species Survival Plan program. Participation in the SSP breeding program is designed to assist in the USFWS goal of doubling the red wolf population in captivity.
USFWS support for ASU’s work in red wolf conservation has been considerable, Risch said. In addition to grants for red wolf enclosure construction expenses, the federal agency has designated the university’s Arkansas Center for Biodiversity Collections as the national specimen bank for blood and tissue samples.
The ARWCRC is also expected to establish Jonesboro as a national ecotourism destination for visitors, said Jeff Hankins, vice president for strategic communications and economic development for the Arkansas State University System and the project leader with Risch.
“We’re creating a unique national research and conservation laboratory for our students and faculty that could also have a $60 million economic impact on Northeast Arkansas tourism over the next decade,” Hankins said. “Potential students and travelers are looking for unique experiences, and this center will create one. The American red wolf is an iconic and important species in the ecosystem, and it just happens to also be A-State’s beloved mascot. We’re uniquely positioned to escalate red wolf education, research, awareness and population with a collaborative development.”
Hankins said the proposed center involves multiple entities, including the City of Jonesboro, Jonesboro A&P Commission, the USFWS, the Red Wolf SSP, the Association of Zoos & Aquariums, the Endangered Wolf Center in St. Louis, and the Little Rock Zoo. Each partner brings valuable resources, contributions or expertise, he added.
“We still have a lot of work to do to raise the funds for this project through private gifts and corporate sponsorships,” said Hankins, who is leading fundraising efforts. “Investments in this center will result in significant benefits to a critically endangered species in need, while also enhancing ASU’s growth and economic development in Northeast Arkansas.”
Hankins noted that ASU’s work in red wolf conservation has specifically attracted the support of new benefactors such as Weiler and Woods, who had no previous connections to the university. The couple’s $50,000 gift to the ARWCRC follows their contribution of $25,000 in January 2020 to establish the Weiler Woods Red Wolf Conservation Scholarship.
“We are excited to be supporting the Red Wolf Conservation and Research Center both financially and by donating Dale’s red wolf sculpture,” Woods said. “This project has a special place in our hearts because it will educate the public about these iconic American native animals, expand the breeding capacity for rewilding red wolves all while using art to spread awareness.”
Weiler’s original 200-pound alabaster stone sculpture “Just Settling In” depicts a red wolf with her pup. It has been temporarily on display at Bradbury Art Museum and will be permanently featured at the new red wolf facility as part of a planned endangered species art collection. Soon a casting of the sculpture will be featured at the Embassy Suites Red Wolf Convention Center in Jonesboro. The couple’s website – weilerwoodsforwildlife.com – and artwork promote conservation of endangered species. They were recently featured in a First Horizon Bank “Unstoppable Spirits” video.
Bobango, a longtime supporter and 1978 graduate of Arkansas State, is chief manager of Memphis-based law firm Farris Bobango PLC. He is past international president of Pi Kappa Alpha Fraternity.
“It’s been a joy to be an advocate for Arkansas State across the country through the years,” Bobango said. “Lisa and I love the benefits of this red wolf conservation project. From conservation to education to regional economic development, A-State is playing a critical role in a national project. We’re proud to be part of this initiative.”