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Economic impact estimated at $170 million annually from red wolves in Great Smoky Mountains and eastern North Carolina

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Most residents of states surrounding the red wolf re-establishment zones in eastern North Carolina and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park endorse wolf-recovery efforts and may spend as much as $170 million a year to visit the endangered animals, a Cornell University study has shown.

"We found broad and strong public support for re-establishment of the red wolf," said William E. Rosen, the economist in Cornell's College of Human Ecology who directed the eight-state survey. "More than 70 percent of the people we talked with said they want to visit one of the recovery regions, and 27 percent said they would be less likely to visit if the red wolves are removed."

Red wolves from captive-breeding populations were reintroduced by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) beginning in 1987 to five rural counties in eastern North Carolina and in 1991 to the Great Smokies, areas where the endangered species has not been seen since the 1800s. Although the red wolf program was somewhat less controversial than the federal government's reintroduction of the gray wolf in the West, some Easterners have voiced opposition.

But the anti-wolf sentiment is in the minority, according to Rosen's telephone survey of 507 randomly selected heads of households in eight states: North Carolina, Tennessee, South Carolina, Virginia, Kentucky, Alabama, Georgia and Ohio. About 75 percent of survey participants favor red wolf recovery, and 70 percent agreed to re-establishing red wolves in a third, yet-to-be-determined region.

Support for red wolf recovery is especially strong among those aged 20 to 29, the Cornell economist said. Households aged 60 and older are less supportive of recovery, but a majority of this group nevertheless favors the projects.

Wolves are a definite tourist attraction, the survey found. Strong interest was indicated for touring red wolf exhibits, seeing red wolves in naturalistic enclosed settings or trying to view wolves in the wild. Many households also are interested in venturing into the wild to participate in "wolf howling" trips.

"Our conservative forecast is for red wolf activities attracting an additional 25,204 households per year to eastern North Carolina and another 87,351 households per year to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park," Rosen said. "Tourists spend money on lodging, food and gifts. We asked people who already had visited the two areas what they spent and came up with an economic impact forecast: about $37.5 million per year in eastern North Carolina and about $132.1 million a year in the national park region."

In addition to the benefits from tourism, the reintroduction of red wolves also provides the public with social benefits, the Cornell study suggested. Noting that three-fourths of the sample favor red wolf recovery, that 85 percent agree it is important to preserve wildlife for the future and 54 percent are highly concerned about endangered species, the economist used a method called contingent valuation to put a price on the wolves' presence.

For the eight states surveyed, the social benefits of red wolf recovery are estimated to be at least $3.25 million a year -- a figure that far exceeds the USFWS costs to manage the projects.

The estimates of social benefits and tourism potential would undoubtedly be larger if the survey reached beyond the eight-state region, the economist added.