Endangered North Carolina: Taking a look at some of the state’s most endangered species, and how you can help
Endangered Species Day is May 19.
It's a day to raise awareness for the species we are most at risk of losing. It certainly does not seem like a day to "celebrate" in the traditional sense, particularly when so many North Carolina species - such as Atlantic sturgeon, Carolina northern flying squirrel, red wolf, and bog turtle - are imperiled.
This Endangered Species Day, we will hold conviction and celebration in tension. Conviction to do our part in ensuring endangered species recover. And celebration of the species - such as wild turkey, bald eagle, river otter, wood duck, and certain native pollinator species - successfully restored or kept from endangered status through on-the-ground conservation work and critical wildlife policy.
In addition to the Endangered Species Act (ESA), which was signed into law by President Richard Nixon in 1973, one piece of wildlife policy that would provide critical funding to native species in need of conservation is the Recovering America’s Wildlife Act (RAWA).
Spearheaded by NC Senator Thom Tillis and his Democratic co-sponsor Senator Martin Heinrich (NM), RAWA would dedicate $1.4 billion annually toward efforts to help fish and wildlife species in decline, including $97.5 million annually to fund proactive wildlife conservation efforts led by Native American tribes.
In North Carolina, RAWA would help prevent the decline of at-risk fish and wildlife species through efforts to restore habitat, remove invasive species, address wildlife diseases, reduce water pollution and mitigate climate change.
You can help RAWA become a reality by signing up to receive NCWF wildlife updates and action alerts as well as donating towards NCWF’s Endangered Species Day campaign to raise $10,000 by May 31st for wildlife in North Carolina. In the meantime, here’s a breakdown of some of North Carolina’s most endangered species, and some things you can do to help them.
Red-cockaded woodpecker (Picoides borealis)
The red-cockaded woodpecker (RCW) is a small woodpecker, with a length of just seven inches. A cavity-nesting species, they are the only woodpecker in North Carolina to excavate cavities in living pine trees, likely due to the resistance of live pine trees to wild and prescribed fires.
While RCWs take up residence in many types of pine trees, they prefer longleaf pine cavities and feed on insects found on or beneath the bark of the tree. Their abandoned cavities are often used by other wildlife species such as lizards, rodents, and other bird species, making RCWs a keystone species to forest structures. According to the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission (NCWRC), at least 27 species of vertebrates have been documented using RCW cavities.
RCWs typically live in family groups consisting of a breeding pair and up to four offspring who stick around with their parents for years after fledging. These matured offspring are known as “helpers” and participate in a “cooperative breeding system” where they essentially act as babysitters for the nest, incubating and caring for newborn nestling woodpeckers.
Once a common species throughout long-leaf pine ecosystems, the red-cockaded woodpecker is endangered due to the decimation of critical habitat following increased farming practices throughout the state, urbanization, and the failure to utilize prescribed burning as a means to provide essential long-leaf pine habitat for the species. As a result, according to NCWRC, the reduction of suitable habitat has caused the number of red-cockaded woodpeckers to decline by approximately 99% since the time of European settlement. Once considered a common species, the red-cockaded woodpecker now tragically boasts a mere 14,000 estimated remaining birds across eleven states.
The RCW was listed as endangered in 1970 and received ESA protection upon passage of the act in 1973. According to the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), the reinstitution of several self-sustained breeding populations of RCWs would meet recovery standards, a goal that has yet to be achieved.
As a fire-adapted species, RCWs depend on regular controlled burning of the pine ecosystems they call home. Though much of the RCW species protection and habitat management that occurs takes place on state and federal land, private landowners have the opportunity through NCWRC’s Red-cockaded Woodpecker Safe Harbor Program to implement land management techniques that benefit RCWs, in exchange for regulatory assurances that no additional ESA restrictions will be imposed as a result of their management actions.
Red wolves (Canis rufus)
Red wolves are one of North Carolina’s most popular endangered species among supporters- but also one of the state’s most imperiled species and the world’s most endangered wild canid.
Red wolves have a historic range from southeastern Texas to southern Pennsylvania. Their thick fur coat is generally light brown with red accents, their namesake color. Though they are often confused with other canid species, they are notably larger than coyotes but smaller than the western gray wolf.
As an apex predator in their native range, red wolves are essential for sustaining ecosystem balance through the predation of prey species. The impact that red wolves have on the landscape - and their subsequent removal from the landscape - is known as “trophic cascade”, a subject expanded in the video How Wolves Change Rivers.
Red wolves are federally listed under the ESA of 1973 and are managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS). While this level of protection affords red wolves special considerations, it also makes the work of the biologists critically important because species recovery is dependent on the genetic diversity of a limited number of red wolves and the effectiveness of the methods used to increase population numbers. Literally, every red wolf counts.
Red wolf recovery utilizes management techniques such as captive breeding, island propagation, red wolf release, coyote sterilization, and pup-fostering.
There's an estimated 35-37 red wolves in the wild today, on the Albemarle Peninsula on the North Carolina coast. However, small captive breeding populations exist in select locations, including USFWS’ Red Wolf Center - the hub of the Red Wolf Recovery Program.
Today, according to USFWS, there are approximately 278 red wolves in 49 Red Wolf SAFE (Saving Animals from Extinction) facilities across the country and during the 2021-2022 breeding season, 28 breeding pairs were established and 46 pups were born in captivity - of which 29 survived.
Through the Red Wolf Center, NCWF and USFWS offer educational opportunities and community engagement for the Red Wolf Recovery Program. You can visit the center in person and register to attend red wolf webinars through our website.
In collaboration with USFWS’ Partners Program, NCWF rolled out Prey for the Pack, a cost-share program to assist private landowners in making habitat improvements for red wolves and other wildlife on their properties. Any landowners not wanting to apply for the cost-share portion of the program can still support red wolves by becoming a "supporter" and completing a zero-cost agreement.
Atlantic Sturgeon (Acipenser oxyrinchus oxyrinchus) - when present in inland waters
Atlantic sturgeon are a species of anadromous fish, meaning they spend much of their time in coastal salt water but move along inland freshwater systems to spawn. They are long-distance travelers known to move up to 950 miles in between the ocean and their spawning areas.
Atlantic sturgeon are large fish known to grow up to seven feet in length and to live up to 60 years. They have five rows of protective bony plates called “scutes” and two rows of prenatal shields along their body in addition to a shark-like heterocercal tail, all contributing to their prehistoric appearance. In fact, the species dates all the way back to the dinosaur age and is a member of Acipenseridae, one of the oldest families of fish.
The Atlantic sturgeon population experienced significant declines in the 1900s due to commercial fishing practices, caviar production, and loss of access to their spawning grounds in freshwater systems - largely resulting from dam construction impeding access from coastal waters. Up until the 1800s, the second largest caviar fishery in the US was located in Chesapeake Bay - with lower portions just above the North Carolina-Virginia state line - and utilized unsustainable and largely unregulated harvesting practices. As a result, the Atlantic sturgeon was listed as a federally endangered species in 2012.
The harvest of Atlantic sturgeon is not allowed in North Carolina and any Atlantic sturgeon captured incidental to fishing for other species must be returned to the water alive.
If you encounter a wild sturgeon, please contact the NCWRC’s Division of Inland Fisheries at (919) 707-0220. Include the time, date, and location of the encounter, the approximate length of the fish, and a good-quality photograph (showing the mouth and anal fin for species verification).
Carolina northern flying squirrel (Glaucomys sabrinus coloratus)
The Carolina northern flying squirrel is one of two species of flying squirrel in North Carolina. Their cousin species, the southern flying squirrel, sticks to lower elevations while the Carolina northern flying squirrel resides in higher elevations, usually at least 4,000-5,000 feet above sea level. They largely subsist on a diet of lichens, mushrooms, seeds and nuts.
Their high-elevation population range, combined with their nocturnal behavior, keeps this species hidden and largely unnoticed by human eyes. So hidden, in fact, that the species remained undiscovered until the 1950s. However, it was listed as endangered in 1985, a short 35 years later. Their endangered status came as a result of deforestation and forest fires, which eliminated crucial habitat. The introduction of the invasive balsam and hemlock woolly adelgids further damaged balsam fir and hemlock trees, forcing the squirrels to move to less ideal tree species.
This squirrel species is found in North Carolina, including: Long Hope Mountain, Roan Mountain, Grandfather Mountain, Unaka Mountain, the Black-Craggy Mountains north and east of the French Broad River Basin, and Great Balsam, Plott Balsam, Smoky, and Unicoi Mountains south and west of the French Broad River Basin.
West Indian Manatee (Trichechus manatus)
Often an overlooked North Carolina species, the West Indian manatee, also known as the Florida manatee, is an aquatic that primarily lives in freshwater and brackish marine ecosystems on the coast of the southeast US, where they largely subsist on a diet of underwater grass beds. Related to elephants, they are a very large species and can grow up to 13 feet long and weigh up to 3,500 pounds.
They are considered a seasonal occupant of North Carolina, with most sightings occurring in the latter half of the year, between June and October.
The West Indian manatee has suffered significantly from a combination of habitat loss and collisions with boats. Much of their habitat loss is a result of harmful fertilizer, sewage, manure, and development runoff, which cause algae blooms that are harmful and sometimes even fatal to manatees.
As a species that prefers shallow water habitats, the manatee is at great risk of harm from collisions with boats and other watercraft. Though manatee sightings are rare in North Carolina, it is advised to keep an eye out for manatees when boating in their preferred environments, particularly during the summer season on the coast. In the event that you spot a manatee, be prepared to turn off your boat propeller so as not to accidentally injure the animal.
Kemp’s ridley sea turtle (Lepidochelys kempii)
Multiple sea turtle species are widely known and recognized as endangered. However, many don’t know that the Kemp’s ridley is the rarest of all sea turtles, and that more that can be done for their conservation.
Kemp’s ridley sea turtles - like West Indian manatees - are seasonal occupants of the North Carolina coast. Spending much of their time hunting for fish and shellfish, they use North Carolina coastal beaches as nesting grounds and are known to return to where they were born.
The Kemp’s ridley sea turtle is smaller than most, with a maximum length of two feet and weighing roughly 100 pounds.
They are also a communal species of sea turtle, sometimes coming ashore to nest in large groups, rather than in isolation like most sea turtles. When in Mexico, they may gather by the thousands to lay their eggs in an event known as the arribada (Spanish for “arrival”).
Sea turtles rely on historic nesting grounds to lay their eggs, meaning they will return to habitats they have frequented in the past. Because there may be years in between a Kemp’s ridley sea turtle’s return to a nesting ground, some turtles find that their once welcoming home has been modified in their absence. Nesting sites may become poached or accidentally destroyed by beach vacationers and coastal development. Coastal litter - including nets and fishing gear - also poses a risk of harming sea turtles, often entangling and drowning them.
As a result of these habitat threats, all six species of sea turtle that nest on the shores of the US are listed under the ESA, but Kemp's ridley sea turtle is most at risk. Other species of sea turtle can be found throughout the world’s oceans, but the Kemp’s ridley sea turtles only nest on a few special beaches - including those on the coast of North Carolina. Though there has never been a recorded arribada, or mass nesting event, the declining population numbers require the protection of the few turtles who nest in isolation or in small groups on the North Carolina coast.
Cape Hatteras National Seashore is a hotspot for Kemp’s ridley sea turtles and, as such, is heavily monitored from May 1st to September 15th, during their breeding season. Unlike most sea turtle species, Kemp’s ridley sea turtles often nest during the day, meaning researchers can easily take measurements of the turtles and apply special tags to track both individual turtles and record population data.
If you come across a sea turtle of any kind on your coastal excursions, be sure to maintain a safe distance and report the sighting to the correct authorities. Any interaction with sea turtles could damage nesting sites or cause unnecessary stress to nesting mothers.
You can help endangered species and those of Greatest Conservation Need in North Carolina by helping raise $10,000 by May 31st towards NCWF's Endangered Species May Campaign. Your donation will fund NCWF's conservation policy work, on the ground habitat restoration projects, and public outreach and education of listed species.