Red Wolf

The Endangered Red Wolf

The red wolf (Canis rufus) is one of two species of wolves in North America, the other being the gray wolf (Canis lupus). As their name suggests, red wolves are known for the characteristic reddish color of their fur most apparent behind the ears and along the neck and legs, but are mostly brown and buff colored with some black along their backs. Intermediate in size to gray wolves and coyotes, the average adult red wolf weighs 45-80 pounds, stands about 26 inches at the shoulder and is about 4 feet long from the tip of the nose to the end of the tail.

Red wolves are social animals that live in packs consisting of a breeding adult pair and their offspring of different years, typically five to eight animals. Red wolves prey on a variety of wild mammals such as raccoon, rabbit, white-tailed deer, nutria, and other rodents. Most active at dusk and dawn, red wolves are elusive and generally avoid humans and human activity.

Red wolves are protected as an endangered species under the Endangered Species Act and are classified as "critically endangered" on the International Union for Conservation of Nature's (IUCN) Red List. As of December 2020, there are currently 8 known to remain in the wild in North Carolina.

History of the Red Wolf

The red wolf is one of the world’s most endangered wild canids. Once common throughout the southeastern United States, red wolf populations were decimated by the 1960s due to intensive predator control programs and loss of habitat. A remnant population of red wolves was found along the Gulf coast of Texas and Louisiana. After being declared an endangered species in 1973, efforts were initiated to locate and capture as many wild red wolves as possible. Of the 17 remaining wolves captured by biologists, 14 became the founders of a successful captive breeding program. Consequently, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) declared red wolves extinct in the wild in 1980.

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Restoration Efforts

By 1987, enough red wolves were bred in captivity to begin a restoration program to return the species to a portion of their traditional range in the southeast United States. For over two decades the USFWS has been restoring red wolves to the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge in northeastern North Carolina. The WCC joined the recovery effort in 2004 via its acceptance into the Red Wolf Species Survival Plan and has played a critical role in preserving and protecting these imperiled species through carefully managed breeding and reintroduction. To date, the WCC has welcomed four red wolf litters (2010, 2015, and two in 2018) and a single red wolf from the WCC has been given the extraordinary opportunity to resume his rightful place on the wild landscape. As of the winter of 2020, the WCC is home to 16 red wolves. 14 of our resident red wolves occupy enclosures in the WCC's Endangered Species Facility. These enclosures are private and secluded, and the wolves are not on exhibit for the public. The WCC’s two other red wolves reside on exhibit in the Red Wolf Exhibit.

Challenges to Recovery

As of December 2020, 8 known (radio-collared) red wolves roam the wilds of northeastern North Carolina and about 250 comprise the captive breeding program, still an essential element of red wolf recovery. Although the red wolf population peaked at over 130 individuals in 2006, inaction and mismanagement on the part of the USFWS, coupled with illegal killings, has resulted in a steep decline. No wild litters were born in 2019 or 2020.

In 2018, a federal judge ruled that USFWS has a duty under the ESA to protect and conserve red wolves and that their decisions to halt wild releases and allow landowners to kill red wolves violated their legal requirements under the ESA. Read more.

The below graph illustrates the population fluctuations and associated anthropogenic (human-caused) actions that resulted in either an increase or decrease in the wild population.

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History of the Red Wolf Recovery Program

It was the belief that the red wolf caused widespread cattle losses that led to extensive predator control programs in the early part of the 20th Century. Fear and a misunderstanding of the animal led to indiscriminate killing for bounties. The red wolf was also affected by land clearing and drainage projects, logging, mineral exploration, and road development that encroached on its forest habitat.

As predator control programs were carried out with a vengeance, the red wolf was totally removed from extensive areas of its former range, while in other areas its social structure was destroyed by removal of pack members. At the same time, deforestation in eastern Texas and Oklahoma caused an eastward surge of the coyote. These factors resulted in red wolf and coyote interbreeding when red wolves were unable to find mates of their own species.


In 1967, the red wolf was listed as an endangered species (under a law that preceded the Endangered Species Act of 1973), meaning it is considered in danger of extinction throughout all or a significant portion of its range.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service established a captive-breeding program for the red wolf in 1973. Biologists began to remove remaining red wolves from the wild in an effort to save the species from extinction. These animals were taken to the Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium in Tacoma, Washington. Over a period of 6 years, more than 400 wolf-like canids were captured in Louisiana and Texas, but of this number, only 43 were considered red wolves and were placed in captivity. Further, breeding experiments revealed that only 17 of the 43 were true red wolves, and only 14 of these successfully bred in captivity. By 1980, the red wolf was considered extinct in the wild.

In 1977, captive red wolf pairs produced their first litters. Biologists took great care to maintain the wild instincts of these animals and to avoid creating a dependence on man.


In 1987, four pairs of red wolves were reintroduced to the wild on the 120,000-acre Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge in northeastern North Carolina. Each wolf was equipped with a  radio transmitter so that biologists could monitor their movements. Additional releases were made, and the first wild  reproduction occurred in 1988. The reintroduction area has been expanded to include additional federal and private lands, and now encompasses approximately 500,000 acres. While the wild population was estimated to be about 100 in the start of 2014, the current population estimate is at its lowest level (7) since the late 1980s.

Early releases of red wolves at Alligator River resulted in high mortality, and some animals exhibited a tolerance of people considered to put them at risk because of potential conflict with human activities. Therefore, several island projects were established to serve as pre-reintroduction sites where the wolves could have their first experience in the wild with limited human contact. Wolves placed on these islands have reproduced, and the packs roam freely on the islands. The adults and/or young are subsequently captured and used in reintroduction projects such as the one at the Alligator River refuge. Bulls Island in the Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge in South Carolina, Horn Island in the Gulf Islands National Seashore in Mississippi, and St. Vincent National Wildlife Refuge in Florida were the three island sites used as pre-reintroduction sites.

Disease and parasites have also caused mortality among the reintroduced red wolf populations. Hookworm, heartworm, distemper, parvovirus and others have taken their toll. Now, released and captive animals are vaccinated against such maladies.

A second, experimental reintroduction site was selected in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park to explore the feasibility of the red wolf's re-establishment into the Southern Appalachian Mountains. The objectives of the experiment were to evaluate the red wolf interaction with coyotes, livestock, and people.

A 1-year experimental release of a family group in 1991 was successful and concluded by recapturing the animals. A full-scale reintroduction then began with the release of two family groups in 1992. Movement of members of one group outside the park and cattle depredation by the second group required temporary removal of these animals in 1994.

The Fish and Wildlife Service also is working with the U.S. Forest Service to evaluate National Forest lands in the Southern Appalachians and elsewhere what may be suitable as future reintroduction sites.


Red wolves remain among the world’s most endangered species. The International Union for Conservation of Nature as “Critically Endangered”.

On April 19, 2018, USFWS completed its Species Status Assessment (SSA) and five-year review for the critically endangered red wolf and confirmed what has been self-evident - the wild population is in crisis and could go extinct within eight years. Termination of the recovery program would inevitably result in the loss of the last population of red wolves, rendering the species “Extinct in the Wild”, and reducing it to a “museum curio.”

Although the red wolf recovery program once served as a model for successful recovery of wolves, political barriers and consistent mismanagement by the USFWS have seriously threatened the continued existence of this highly imperiled species. In 2014, the USFWS stopped reintroducing captive-born red wolves into the wild, ceased implementing the Red Wolf Adaptive Management Plan that limited hybridization with coyotes, and even began issuing kill permits to landowners. In its most recent proposal announced in 2016, the agency called to place most of the last remaining wild red wolves in captivity.

Current estimates put the wild population at the lowest level in decades, down from 130 at the peak to only 8 known at the end of December 2020.

Red wolves are highly endangered, but we still have time to save them.

The Service’s departure from its own accepted and proven management practices has resulted in the corresponding decline in the population. What USFWS, the very agency charged with protecting endangered species, needs to do is restore the field program to the same level of intensity prior to 2014 that achieved success in bringing about a functioning wolf population that once numbered over 130 animals. 

What is the Red Wolf Species Survival Plan (RWSSP)?

The Wolf Conservation Center (WCC) participates in the federal Species Survival Plan (SSP) recovery programs for the Mexican gray wolf and the red wolf, two of the rarest mammals in North America. Both species at one time were extinct in the wild. 

Since 2003 the WCC has played a critical role in preserving and protecting these imperiled species with through carefully managed breeding and reintroduction. To date, the WCC remains one of the three largest holding facilities for these rare species and five wolves from the Center have been given the extraordinary opportunity to resume their rightful place on the wild landscape. 

What is a Species Survival Plan? 

A Species Survival Plan (SSP) is a breeding and management program designed to ensure the long-term sustainability of captive-based animal populations. It’s a coordinated effort among zoos, organizations like the Wolf Conservation Center, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and managed under the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA). 

As a participant in the RWSSP the WCC: 

  • House and care for the wolves
  • Participate in the captive breeding program
  • Make observations and recommendations for release
  • Conduct semen and oocyte collection for future use via artificial insemination
  • Research
  • Raise awareness and encourage public participation
View Red Wolf Species Survival Plan Population Analysis and Breeding and Transfer Recommendations.

The Red Wolf SSP meets annually to develop recommendations that guide breeding and transfer objectives for the living population. These recommendations are are posted on the RWSSP website

Red Wolf (Canis rufus) Population Viability Analysis –FINAL REPORT FOR U.S. FISH AND WILDLIFE SERVICE (USFWS) FEASIBILITY STUDY (10 June 2016)

RWSSP Population Analysis and Breeding and Transfer Recommendations 

Red Wolf Studbooks 

A studbook is a pedigree that identifies a red wolf with its own unique “studbook number” and follows that animal throughout all events in its lifetime. The studbook is an important tool that is used when making breeding and transfer recommendations.

 Recovery Program Documents 

The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service provides additional recovery program documents as downloadable pdf files on its website here.

Red Wolf Online Resources and Research