Bridgett vonHoldt was grabbing lunch at Viet Cajun, a restaurant on the Galveston Island Seawall, when a chatty local approached her. The man had pegged her and her group, correctly, as out-of-towners. Birders, he figured, if the binoculars they carried were any clue. You know what you should do,” he told vonHoldt, “is go look at these wolves.” 

VonHoldt was thrilled at the suggestion—not because it was the kind of locally sourced hot tip that travelers crave, but because she is one of the preeminent experts on the “ghost wolves” of Galveston, coyotes that carry unusually high levels of DNA from red wolves, the world’s most endangered wolf. VonHoldt, an associate professor of evolutionary genomics at Princeton University, and Kristin Brzeski, a conservation geneticist now at Michigan Technological University, were in town to put collars on the coyotes and set up trail cameras. “We’re like, ‘Oh, actually we know all about them,’ ” said vonHoldt.

That this random Galvestonian would act as an ambassador for the animals to total strangers impressed the Princeton scientist. Wolves, and their close cousins, coyotes, are typically not welcomed by humans. The Mexican gray wolf was hunted, trapped, and poisoned out of existence in Texas by 1970. And coyotes, still abundant in the state, are considered by many to be nuisances or worse. Not that long ago, it was common practice for ranchers to string up dead ’yotes from their front fences. Governor Rick Perry famously dispatched a coyote with his laser-sighted pistol while out for a jog in West Austin. 

Galveston Island has proved different. In the six years since vonHoldt and other canid scientists confirmed the presence of the Galveston “ghost wolves,” many on the island have embraced the animals as part of the community’s quirky identity. “Galveston has a unique history and a unique vision and culture,” vonHoldt said. “And to have people even be interested in coyote is novel for me.”

But just as interest in the animals is growing, so is a potential threat to their survival. A development boom, fueled by tourism and beach-seeking homeowners, is gobbling up many of Galveston’s remaining green spaces. The biggest controversy centers on Margaritaville, a Jimmy Buffet–themed resort planned for a 95-acre site in one of the last undeveloped parts of the island’s East End. The size of the development, and its location near sensitive habitat, worry conservationists. And the symbolism is inescapable: There is something distinctly American about wild critters being sacrificed to make way for cheeseburgers in paradise. 

The Ghost Wolves of Galveston vs. Margaritaville
A pack of ghost wolves on Galveston Island. Ron Wooten
The Ghost Wolves of Galveston vs. Margaritaville
A female red wolf. Getty

The scientific discovery of the ghost wolves of Galveston can be credited in great part to a longtime islander named Ron Wooten and his late dog Scruffy. One day in late 2008, not long after Hurricane Ike devastated Galveston, Wooten let Scruffy—a vagabond-ish rescue who could be a bit grumpy—outside without his leash. Scruffy was eaten by a pack of coyotes, desperate for food. Many pet owners might have reached for their rifle. But Wooten, who has a background in wildlife biology, reached for his camera. He began documenting the island’s coyotes. Soon, he noticed something odd about the animals: they were bigger than regular ’yotes, with long legs and reddish fur. Over time, he developed a hunch. These were either red wolves or coyotes carrying the DNA of red wolves they had bred with generations ago. Either way, he knew the animals could be a big deal. Red wolves once roamed across much of Texas and the southeastern U.S. In the 1970s, the federal government rounded up the remaining members of Canis rufus, confined to a swatch of the Gulf Coast in Texas and Louisiana, to start a captive breeding program. But only fourteen of those animals successfully reproduced. Today just thirty or so red wolves remain in the wild, in eastern North Carolina. The critically endangered population has been weakened by inbreeding and continues to be threatened by conflicts with humans.

Wooten began sending his photos of the mystery canids to scientists. Eventually he found his way to vonHoldt, who was intrigued. Did he have any DNA samples? “I said, ‘Well, by golly, I sure do. In my freezer right next to the ice cream and a couple of dead fish from offshore.’ ” Wooten, anticipating the need for DNA, cut tissue from roadkill using a dissection kit left over from his days as a student at Texas A&M—a macabre roadside excision that left him feeling a tad guilty.  

But it worked. In 2018, Brzeski, vonHoldt, and Wooten confirmed the existence of the Galveston ghost wolves in a scientific paper. “After that, it just kind of exploded,” Wooten said.

The Ghost Wolves of Galveston vs. Margaritaville
An aerial view of Galveston’s East End, where the Margaritaville site is located.Getty

The discovery of the ghost wolves opens up tantalizing possibilities for the recovery of the red wolf. 

The coyote-wolf admixtures could become part of a “good old-fashioned breeding program”—crossing particularly wolfy individuals in pursuit of a pure red wolf, or something approaching it. Or scientists could turn to new biotech methodologies such as gene splicing. Any conservation strategy would also involve simply helping the ghost wolves—and their endangered genetic cargo—survive into the future. 

Brzeski and vonHoldt also hope to answer basic questions about the ghost wolves, among them: Are ghost wolves carrying the last part of the red wolf DNA thought to be gone? Can the ghost wolves be traced back to pure red wolves missed during the federal roundup in the seventies? Is the island population being replenished by individuals moving in from protected wildlife areas such as the nearby Brazoria National Wildlife Refuge? 

“We’re just getting started,” said Brzeski. Meanwhile, the two scientists are collaborating with locals on efforts to study and protect the ghost wolves. In June, Brzeski and vonHoldt plan to launch a citizen-science campaign to collect coyote scat and send it in for genetic testing. This work could help the scientists determine the range of the coyote-wolf hybrids. Meanwhile, the two scientists are collaborating with the Galveston Island Humane Society on a program that has outfitted the animals with tracking collars. Josh Henderson, the executive director for the Humane Society, said at a town hall event in January that he has collected “mind-blowingly remarkable GPS data” that shows how far some of the coyotes range, including a yearling male who traveled 2,090 miles on the island, south to Port O’Connor and on the mainland—the equivalent of a trip from San Diego, California, to Jacksonville, Florida.

The ghost wolves could also be a boon to the Galveston tourist economy. Brzeski marvels at the opportunity to see the ghost wolves, or wotes, as some locals call them. She describes Galveston Island as a “unique hot spot” within a larger region—southeast Texas and southwest Louisiana—that hosts wolf-coyotes. “You can go see them every morning. You can listen to them. You can watch them, you can count them. You can start to understand their behavior.” And many do. A Facebook group devoted to the Galveston canids features stories, and photos, of ghost wolf sightings. 

In January, more than four hundred people attended a town hall to hear from Brzeski and vonHoldt about their research. The turnout was also prompted by concerns on how a development boom on the island could imperil the ghost wolves. In particular, conservationists have been raising alarms about a Margaritaville-themed hotel and residential development slated for the island’s East End—part of a wave of gentrification that is displacing wildlife and Galvestonians. 

Margaritaville Galveston is part of an empire of hotels, restaurants, and cruises spawned from the chill-vibes lifestyle brand that emerged around Jimmy Buffett, the songwriter who wrote “Margaritaville” and “Cheeseburger in Paradise” and died a billionaire in 2023. The newest Margaritaville will include a 334-room “island-inspired” resort, a 350-foot lazy river, four restaurants, a “License to Chill Bar,” and pickleball courts—all in the service of what the company, Margaritaville Development, calls “the Margaritaville state of mind.” Construction is slated to begin later this year on the beachfront 95-acre site, which includes a portion of the East End Lagoon, an undeveloped system of estuaries, wetlands and coastal prairie. Partially protected by a city-owned preserve, the lagoon is frequented by a pack of ghost wolves with unusually high levels of red wolf DNA.

Conservationists fear that Parrotheads and wild animals might be an uneasy mix. The ghost wolves won’t go extinct on Galveston Island, vonHoldt said, but they will likely be displaced, and some will end up being killed by cars. With only an estimated 50 ghost wolves total, the genetic diversity of the population could be diminished. According to her research with Brzeski, coyotes with higher levels of red-wolf ancestry prefer green areas, such as the East End Lagoon. Henderson’s tracking data also shows how the animals are “supremely focused on wild habitat.”

Brzeski says the issue is bigger than just the coyotes. She sees the attention on Margaritaville as “an opportunity for Galveston to pivot” to more of a nature-based approach to development. The city’s tourism industry is booming, with a massive new cruise terminal and numerous other new or refurbished hotels and restaurants. Galveston is rebranding itself—why not make conservation part of that new image?  “We obviously are interested in the ghost wolves, but they’re just the symbol, the emblematic flagship of the broader issue,” Brzeski says.

The island’s “white-hot tourism industry”—as the Houston Chronicle recently put it—could spoil its seaside charm, says Wooten. “All these developments are destroying habitats and bringing in more concrete and heat, while eliminating the beautiful spaces that were once all over the island,” he said. “I do wish we could get some folks in local government whose focus would be better stewardship of these places in which we live, and not just more piles of money.”

Wooten also allows that not everyone on the island loves the ghost wolves. On occasion, he has told property owners about a pack living on their land, “and within a month, the habitat they were using for dens and loafing was shredded.” Others, he says, have bragged about shooting the animals. State law reflects this casual animosity. Coyotes aren’t protected game in Texas; they can be hunted year-round with no limits on how many can be killed. Craig Brown, the mayor of Galveston, told Texas Monthly that while he sees opportunities to promote the ghost wolves as part of the island’s ecotourism offerings, the community is “divided” on the issue. “They seem to be increasing in number from reports I’m getting from the community,” Brown said. “And there are many people concerned for the safety of their animals and pets.”

The conservationists have asked the developers—a consortium of RREAF Holdings, Innisfree Hotels, and Margaritaville Holdings LLC—to create a wildlife corridor from the lagoon to the beach and develop a wildlife protection plan. But vonHoldt says the company hasn’t been forthcoming with documentation. “If they could make some of this information or products public, there might be more belief that what they say is honest.” 

Carl Schwab, president of RREAF Development Services, declined a request for an interview, but in an emailed statement, a spokesperson for the company said it has “addressed migratory bird protection in the dunes, invested over $250,000 in environmental consultancy and studies, and implemented an Avian Protection Plan.” RREAF also wrote that it had proposed donating nine acres to the East End Lagoon Preserve and said 40 of the site’s 95 acres “will remain undeveloped wilderness and wetland”—a lower density, he claims, than at any development on the east end of the island. RREAF declined to provide its plans for protecting the ghost wolves and other wildlife. Innisfree declined a request for an interview, and Margaritaville did not respond to a request for an interview. 

RREAF expects to open Margaritaville Galveston in 2026. In other words, the resort is coming and the ghost wolves will have to make way or make do. Whether guests of Margaritaville will stop, mid-cheeseburger in paradise, to gawk at the sight of wild beasts carrying inside them the ancient codes to revive a species hounded nearly to oblivion—well, that’s a song yet to be written.