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OPINION | REX NELSON: The red wolves

by Rex Nelson | April 24, 2022 at 3:00 a.m.

One of the nice things about living in a small state such as Arkansas is that you deal with a lot of the same people through the years. I met Jeff Hankins more than four decades ago when I was sports editor of the Daily Siftings Herald at Arkadelphia. Jeff was a high school student in Pine Bluff and worked part-time in the sports department at the Pine Bluff Commercial.

The Freeman family of Pine Bluff owned the Commercial and Siftings Herald, and I would sometimes cover sports stories for both newspapers. When I would call in those stories, Hankins often would be on the other end of the line to take my dictation.

For the past decade, Hankins has served as vice president for strategic communications and economic development for the Arkansas State University System. He’s a 1987 ASU graduate.

Hankins previously was president and publisher of Arkansas Business Publishing Group. On this day, I’ve joined Hankins and ASU professor of animal ecology Tom Risch to talk about red wolves. Not the athletic teams at ASU, but the actual endangered species that officials on the Jonesboro campus chose as a mascot when they gave up the politically incorrect Indians moniker in 2008.

In 2007, then-Chancellor Robert Potts formed a steering committee to look for a new mascot. Committee members settled on a species that was native to Arkansas. For the record, I suggested at the time that the teams become the Mallards, that the school colors change to a camouflage pattern, that the football stadium be known as The Blind, and that fans blow duck calls at games. You can’t get more “Arkansas” than that.

Risch is vice provost for research and technology transfer at ASU and also directs the Arkansas Biosciences Institute on the Jonesboro campus. Under his leadership, the institute became a national repository of red wolf DNA as sanctioned by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. He and Hankins are equally enthusiastic about plans to establish the American Red Wolf Conservation & Research Center at Craighead Forest Park in Jonesboro.

The Jonesboro Advertising & Promotion Commission gave $300,000 that will be used for park improvements associated with the project. Two grants totaling $158,000 came from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service for constructing fences. Private gifts are now flowing in. They include a $50,000 contribution from wildlife conservation advocates Dale Weiler and Loti Woods of North Carolina along with a $50,000 gift from ASU alumnus John Bobango of Germantown, Tenn.

Bobango, the chief manager of Memphis law firm Farris Bobango and a past international president of Pi Kappa Alpha fraternity, graduated from ASU in 1978 and has long been an advocate for the school.

Weiler and Woods, meanwhile, had no previous connections to the university. Their $50,000 gift followed a $25,000 contribution in January 2020 to establish the Weiler Woods Red Wolf Conservation Scholarship. They also donated Weiler’s red wolf sculpture titled “Just Settling In.”

There are only about 250 red wolves still alive. The wolves once inhabited the entire southeastern United States. The only wild red wolves (about 20) are in North Carolina.

“Our vision for this facility is lofty,” Risch says. “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.” There will be six fenced enclosures on 10 acres for at least 12 red wolves. The wolves will come from the existing population that’s being managed as part of the national Red Wolf Species Survival Plan. The national program’s goal is to double the red wolf population in captivity. Hankins stresses that there are no plans to release wolves into the wild in Arkansas.

Hankins, with his focus on economic development, sees Jonesboro becoming an ecotourism destination. The Arkansas Game & Fish Commission already operates one of its regional nature centers adjacent to Craighead Forest Park. Hankins talks about the project in the same excited tone that I once heard him talk about sports and newspapers.

“We’re creating a research and conservation lab for our students and faculty that could also have a $60 million economic impact on northeast Arkansas during the next decade,” he says. “Students and travelers are looking for unique experiences, and this center will create one.” Hankins says there’s still money to be raised, and he’s reaching out across the country for donors such as Weiler and Woods.

“This project has a special place in our hearts because it will educate the public about these iconic American native animals and expand breeding capacity for rewilding red wolves,” Woods says.

Weiler’s 200-pound alabaster stone sculpture depicts a red wolf with her pup. It has been on display at the Bradbury Art Museum in Jonesboro and will be permanently featured at the facility in Craighead Forest Park. The 10-acre site was once a gun range. There will be a 5,600-square-foot building for operations and education along with a faculty-led team that will care for red wolves, oversee the facility and lead educational initiatives.

An observation deck will be built onto the back of the headquarters building. The structure will be designed to blend in with its natural setting. Short documentary films will be shown, and there will be multimedia exhibits and a wildlife art collection. ASU will even operate a shop selling red wolf-themed gifts.

“Our plan is consistent with projects across the country that create great city parks,” Hankins says. “The American Red Wolf Conservation & Research Center will complement the existing Crowley’s Ridge Nature Center for school field trips and tourists. It also will ensure that there’s no other development at the site such as an RV park. We’re projecting 25,000 tourists annually.”

Hankins says the center will be among the amenities that those working for the Embassy Suites and Red Wolf Convention Center on the ASU campus use to recruit conventions to the city.

“We’re looking at $5 million for construction and furnishings, a $2.5 million payroll and about $53 million in tourism spending during the first 10 years,” Hankins says.

Risch notes that access to the specimen bank at ASU will create research opportunities. Red wolves suffer from high levels of inflammatory bowel disease, requiring a broad range of studies. There also will be research on inherited disease of the retina (which has been documented in red wolves) and on red wolf parasites.

In 2018, ASU hosted the Red Wolf Species Survival Plan annual meeting and workshops. Risch wants to study area coyote populations in search of red wolf genes. Such a mix has been found on Galveston Island in Texas.

The red wolves at the center will be monitored by staff members 365 days a year. Local veterinarians will be secured for in-kind services. The red wolves will eat purchased dry foods along with local contributions of wild game.

Hankins says noise won’t be a problem. Red wolves briefly howl but don’t bark like dogs. They’re most likely to howl at dusk and dawn, not through the night. Area residents won’t hear red wolves from inside their homes. There will be three fence enclosures—primary enclosures, a secondary perimeter fence and a privacy fence around the facility. Video monitors will be used.

Red wolves are shy. There are no documented cases of red wolf attacks in the wild on humans.

“In addition to establishing Jonesboro as an ecotourism attraction, we expect to see everyone from kindergarten students to college students using the center,” Hankins says. “We’re setting ASU apart with a national conservation research lab involving live, critically endangered species. The potential is quite exciting.”

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Rex Nelson is a senior editor at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.


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