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 February 2023, there are currently 14 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 two red wolves from the WCC have been given the extraordinary opportunity to resume their rightful places on the wild landscape. As of early 2022, the WCC is home to 10 red wolves. 8 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. One of the WCC's former resident red wolves, Deven, was chosen for release into the wild in May 2021!

Challenges to Recovery

As of February 2021, 10 known (radio-collared) red wolves roamed the wilds of northeastern North Carolina and about 250 comprised 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.

In November 2020, the Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC) sued USFWS for violations of the ESA connected with the agency’s new policies that prohibit proven management strategies to recover the world’s only remaining population of critically endangered red wolves. In January 2021, U.S. District Court Judge Terrence Boyle ruled that USFWS must develop a plan by March 1, 2021 to resume the successful practice of releasing captive red wolves into the Red Wolf Recovery Area in North Carolina. The court order temporarily prohibits the agency from implementing its recent policy change barring release of captive wolves into the wild. Read more. 

In February 2021, USFWS released two male red wolves onto Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge in eastern North Carolina, increasing the total known population of wild red wolves from 8 to 10.

In May 2021, USFWS released four adult red wolves into the Red Wolf Recovery Area and placed four captive born pups with a wild red wolf mother, bringing the wild population to 18 known red wolves. Tragically, one of the released females was found dead in June 2021, and four more wolves died in July 2021. Another wolf was found dead in the fall of 2021. As of October 2021, only 8 red wolves are known to remain in the wild.

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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