Science Book a Day Interviews T DeLene Beeland

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Special thanks to T DeLene Beeland for answering 8 questions about her recently featured book – The Secret World of Red Wolves: The Fight to Save North America’s Other Wolf

It was my love for wild nature that led me back to science. As a child, I trolled for redfish in the Gulf of Mexico with my parents. In winter, we slogged across mudflats in the freezing dawn for stone crabs, and in fall we donned masks and snorkels and floated over shallow grass flats to scoop up scallops. On dry land, I explored our small backyard and developed an affinity for plants and animals. In March of 2010 I became a full-time independent non-fiction writer.  I recently completed my first book, a narrative about the highly endangered red wolf, which was released in June by the University of North Carolina Press. I have written for the Sci-Tech pages of The Observer, a newspaper in Charlotte, N.C.; several university research magazines, and I’ve contributed to Slate.com, Wildlife in North Carolina, the Loh Down on Science radio program, OnEarth magazine’s blog, and the Orlando Sentinel’s (former) Travel Section. I’m a member of the National Association of Science Writers, where I volunteer on the Freelance Committee; and I’m a member of the International League of Conservation Writers. – Adapted from DeLene’s Homepage

DeLene’s Homepage: http://www.delene.us
DeLene’s Twitter: https://twitter.com/tdelene

If you’re interested in photos of these wolves, make sure you check out Red Wolf Recovery Program’s Flickr page

#1 – What was the impetus for The Secret of Red Wolves?

Some of the best writing advice I’ve ever heard was along the lines of “Never, ever write a book; unless you absolutely must.” For me, writing this book fell squarely into the “absolutely must” category.

I have a pre-existing interest in wolves and large predator reintroductions, which can be traced back to my graduate studies where my thesis involved Mexican gray wolves and their reintroduction. It was while working on my thesis that I first learned of red wolves. What on earth is a red wolf, I wondered? I grew up in the South. I’m a nature lover. But I’d never, ever heard of a southeastern red wolf before.

I was intrigued by what this mystery animal was almost from the first time I heard of it. After finishing my thesis on Mexican gray wolves, I circled back to red wolves and began poking around looking for something to write about them. That’s when I discovered it had been more than 18 years since anyone had written a book-length piece on red wolves for a general audience. (There’s lots of book for kids, and many chapters on them in academic books, but nothing like the book I authored.) It was a golden opportunity hiding in plain sight, so I snatched it up.

#2 – Can you tell us about the program that you shadowed for a year, that is the basis of this book?

The program is run by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and one of their primary goals is to maintain a population of red wolves in three different reintroduction sites for the next hundred years or so. There is only one reintroduction site that is active, the one my book focuses on in northeastern North Carolina. A second reintroduction site failed (Great Smoky Mountains National Park), and they need to identify a third reintroduction site.

The biologists manage the red wolves throughout the year by trying to prevent hybridization with coyotes (they will interbreed under certain circumstances, and hybridization is one of the threats to the red wolf’s conservation), maximize the number of breeding-age animals that are paired before breeding season in late winter, maximize the number of puppies born each spring, and minimize the number of red wolves that are poached throughout the year.

Because there are only around ninety or so wild red wolves, every animal counts. There are situations where an ill or injured red wolf has to be captured to undergo medical treatment, and I wrote about some of these management situations in Part I of my book. Overall, the wild population is heavily managed. It would not be unusual for an adult red wolf to have been handled by program biologists two, three, or more times over the course of its life. (Red wolves live around seven or eight years, on average, in the wild.)

The program has been underway for twenty-seven years in terms of the on-the-ground reintroduction work, but it’s faced heavy obstacles from the beginning. Recovering red wolves is much more biologically challenging than recovering gray wolves in the western U.S. has been, in part because they hybridize with coyotes. Coyotes used to be a western species, but they are now present throughout the red wolf’s historic southeastern range. Their historic habitat has also changed fundamentally in ways that makes today’s human-modified landscape extremely challenging for red wolves to use successfully. Both of these are huge challenges to overcome.

#3 – You covered a lot of science that affects the Red Wolf. How did you deal with this research and analogies required to communicate this information to your readers?

I was constantly thinking about who might read this book. I knew it would receive scrutiny by experts working within the field of wolf recovery and wolf origins, but I also knew it would be of interest to general wildlife and nature lovers. So I tried to write it in a way that nonexperts could understand, even though it covers some research that got rather “down in the weeds.” I must ask for a little bit of forgiveness from readers at both ends of this spectrum, because I was writing for a rather broad cross section of people.

In general, I would take copious notes on the research papers and try to map out what the scientists did and what their conclusions were. If needed, I’d often interview at least one of the paper’s authors as well. Then I sifted and sifted and sifted through my notes, trying to break things down into the important parts and break that down even further until it was written in a way that was easily understandable.

Some things are just inherently complex though, like evolution, and I know that the chapter on red wolves’ possible evolutionary origins is the hardest, most dense chapter for a general reader to get through. Luckily, I think the book is written in a way that if a particular scientific summary is not of interest to a general reader, they can skip it and still get a lot of knowledge and enjoyment out of the whole book. And for those who are more interested in what the scientific world knows — or thinks it knows — about red wolves, I’m glad to have provided them with rich details, facts, and synthesis.

#4 – You talk about what defines these animals as a distinct species. What is the controversy in our understanding?

The crux of the controversy rests on whether red wolves arose as a unique species, or arose as the hybrid offspring of gray wolves and coyotes. I think the whole of the evidence points more toward them having a unique origin, one in which they are closely associated with the lineage of New World canids which also led to coyotes. One problem is that the red wolf we have today is so heavily affected by hybridization that it’s difficult to tease apart what it may have once been. So it’s incredibly difficult to answer questions about its origins with modern-day specimens. To better test the competing theories of red wolf origins, we’d ideally have fossils analyzed from well before the time of European settlement of the East (when hybridization with coyotes may have begun). Unfortunately, we have not yet found ancient specimens with viable DNA.

#5 – What is the prognosis for the future of Red Wolves?

Wouldn’t it be nice to shake a crystal ball and know! We will always have them in wildlife centers and zoos, their genome can be safeguarded there quite easily. But of course, one wishes for a wild animal to live in its wild habitat. I’m not as certain what the future holds for wild red wolves. Truthfully, I feel a bit less hopeful now than I did when I was writing the book, due to political machinations which have had very real, biological and ecological outcomes for these beleaguered animals. I feel all I can say is that it will be an uphill fight to continue to have them in the wild.

#6 – What topic was the most challenging to write?

The two competing theories of red wolf origins were a beast to write about. There are several papers that comprise the history and development of each idea. It was difficult for me to translate the totality of these theories — the details, evidence, flaws, and lines of thinking that went into each — without relying on jargon. I tried to always define jargon when I had to use it — what is mitochondrial DNA, for example — but this chapter took weeks of refining and rewriting before it was ready. Because of its technical complexity, it was also sent out for additional rounds of external review to experts so that I could be certain of its accuracy. This process takes a lot of time, but I think it’s a great service to the reader and the chapter is much better for having done this.

Other than that, some of the historical sections in Part II were also quite challenging. I relied deeply on the notes, records and reports of a now-deceased field biologist who was tasked with saving the last wild red wolves and placing them in captive breeding in the 1970s. His archives were an historian’s dream; and his papers offered me a chance to write with clarity and authority on details of the red wolf’s history which may have otherwise been lost to time.

#7 – Different groups have different ideas about Red Wolves. How did you try to balance these perspectives in your writing?

I tried to be respectful that different people experience the phenomena of red wolf recovery differently. Me, I’m a nature lover. I believe endangered species have an inherent value and an inherent right to exist. Not everyone shares this perspective though. I acknowledged the perspective and biases I brought to the material, but I tried to set them aside in order to better understand different views and experiences. In writing about red wolf reintroduction, I felt it was important to acknowledge that different people experience the phenomenon of recovery in different ways. I tried to find people who represented points along the continuum of attitudes from acceptance to neutrality to opposition. Then I used their stories to exemplify these differing viewpoints. I tried to be respectful of their perspectives and experiences, but I also pointed out in the book when misstatements or contortions of fact were incorporated into a source’s viewpoint.

#8 – Do you have any upcoming projects/books that you can tell us about?

I took some time off because I had a baby around the same time The Secret World of Red Wolves was published, but I’m slowly getting back to writing. I’m currently researching two different ideas that may turn into book projects, but I’m not ready to discuss them in detail! I can tell you that one would continue in the vein of conservation and nature writing, while the other would veer into human health. Maybe I’ll do both eventually!

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