Rising Seas Endanger Wetland Wildlife

For scientists in a remote corner of coastal North Carolina, ignoring global warming is not an option

Brian Boutin, a Nature Conservancy biologist, stands protectively over a newly planted bald cypress sapling. Park managers hope to slow the submersion of the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge. (Lynda Richardson)
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The biologists are evaluating their efforts by counting oysters and fish, testing water quality and, with aerial photography, assessing erosion. If successful, the project will be replicated elsewhere in the refuge, and maybe, the scientists hope, up and down the East Coast.

“The next generation may say ‘Wow, they did it all wrong,’” says Dennis Stewart, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist working on the project. But, he adds, “I would rather future generations look back and say, ‘Well, they tried to do something,’ rather than ‘They just sat around.’ We got tired of talking and decided to do something about this.”

One spring day, David Rabon, the USFWS red wolf recovery coordinator, takes me along with his tracking team to look for new pups belonging to a group called the Milltail Pack. The shady forest, crocheted with spider webs, is remarkably peaceful, the sunlit leaves like green stained glass. I hang back until a sharp whistle cracks the silence: the trackers have found the den, a cozy nook beneath a fallen tree, in which seven velveteen beings squirm and mewl toothlessly. Fourth-generation wild wolves, they are about 6 days old.

Their den will probably be submerged one day. The land that was the red wolves’ second chance at wildness will likely become a windblown bay. But if the climate adaptation project succeeds, and future generations of red wolves reach higher ground a few miles to the west, packs may once again prowl a verdant coastline, perhaps even a place reminiscent of Alligator River.

Abigail Tucker is a staff writer. Lynda Richardson shot Venus flytraps for Smithsonian.

Editor's note: An earlier version of this article misidentified a tree as a bald Cyprus. This version has been corrected.


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