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.
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.
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.
RECOVERY EFFORTS AND CAPTIVE BREEDING
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.
REESTABLISHMENTS OF WILD POPULATIONS
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.
FATE OF ENDANGERED RED WOLVES REMAINS UNCERTAIN
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.
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
- Raise awareness and encourage public participation
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.
RWSSP Population Analysis and Breeding and Transfer Recommendations
- SSP Recommendations: 2018
- SSP Recommendations: 2016
- SSP Recommendations: 2015
- SSP Recommendations: 2014
- SSP Recommendations: 2010
- SSP Recommendations: 2009
- SSP Recommendations: 2008
- SSP Recommendations: 2007
- SSP Recommendations: 2006
- SSP Recommendations: 2005
- SSP Recommendations: 2004
- SSP Recommendations: 2003
- SSP Recommendations: 2002
- SSP Recommendations: 2001
- SSP Recommendations: 2000
- SSP Recommendations: 1999
- SSP Recommendations: 1998
- SSP Recommendations: 1997
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.
- Red Wolf Studbook: 2013
- Red Wolf Studbook: 2012
- Red Wolf Studbook: 2011
- Red Wolf Studbook: 2010
- Red Wolf Studbook: 2009
- Red Wolf Studbook: 2008
- Red Wolf Studbook: 2007
- Red Wolf Studbook: 2006
- Red Wolf Studbook: 2005
- Red Wolf Studbook: 2004
- Red Wolf Studbook: 2003
- Red Wolf Studbook: 2002
Recovery Program Documents
The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service provides additional recovery program documents as downloadable pdf files on its website here.
RED WOLF ARTICLES
- 2019 "Only 14 red wolves remain in SC wild, and US agency won't say what they are doing about it." (The Post & Courier) October 2019
- 2018 "Court Victory: Wild Red Wolves Get a Chance at Survival" (Southern Environmental Law Center) November 2018
- 2018 "Rule to Allow Hunting Could Doom Rare Red Wolves" (National Geographic) June 2018
- 2018 "Interior Department Plans to Let People Kill Endangered Red Wolves" (Washington Post) June 2018
- 2018 "With Only 30 Red Wolves Left in the Wild, These 10 Newborn Pups Are Big News" (People Magazine) June 2018
- 2018 "Rewilding’ Missing Carnivores May Help Restore Some Landscapes" (The New York Times) March 2018
- 2018 "CAN RED WOLVES BE SAVED AGAIN?" (Washingon Post) February 2018
- 2016 "This Could Be The Last Red Wolf You'll Ever See" (Dodo) Dec 2016
- 2016 "Rare Wolf or Common Coyote? It Shouldn't Matter, But It Does." (Smithsonian Magazine) 2016
- 2016 "Undermining the red wolf’s recovery in North Carolina" Jamie Rappaport Clark
- 2015 "What's A Species, Anyways?" by Ben Crair via New Republic
- 2015 "Red Wolf Wars" by Ben Prater via Blue Ridge Outdoors
- 2014 "Red Wolf in the Crosshairs" via sciencemag.org
- 2013 "A Closer Look at Red Wolf Recovery: A Conversation with Dr. David R. Rabon" By Neil Hutt via International Wolf Magazine (page 10)
- 2013 “Are red wolves worth the trouble?” by T. DeLene Beeland via Slate Magazine
- 2012 "Extirpated in the wild: recovering the red wolf” by Will Waddell and David Rabon, Jr. via World Association of Zoos and Aquariums
- 2012 "Song of the South" via UK Wolf Conservation Trust Magazine.
- 2010 "Return to the Wild" via UK Wolf Conservation Trust Magazine.
- 2007 "Red Wolf Restoration: A 20-Year Journey" by Diane Hendry via International Wolf Magazine (page 4)
- 2007 “Hunter Education and Red Wolf Restoration” by David Denton via International Wolf Magazine (page 20)
- 2007 “Back from the Brink of Extinction: The Red Wolf Species Survival Program” by Will Waddell via International Wolf Magazine (page 20)
- 2007 “Free to Wander” by David Rabon, Jr. via International Wolf Magazine (page 15)
RED WOLF WEBINARS
- 2018 ECOLOGY, MANAGEMENT, AND RECOVERY OF RED WOLVES IN EASTERN NORTH CAROLINA, Joseph Hinton, Ph.D.
- 2018 The Red Wolf: Disease, Genetics, and the Future, with Kristin Brzeski, PhD.
RED WOLF RESEARCH
- 2019 Evaluating the Taxonomic Status of the MEXICAN GRAY WOLF and the RED WOLF, a Consensus Study Report of the National Academies of Science
- 2018 Red Wolf Species Status Assessment, USFWS
- 2018 Rediscovery Of Red Wolf Ghost Alleles in a Canid Population Along the American Gulf Coast,Heppenheimer et al
- 2018 Substantial red wolf genetic ancestry persists in wild canids of southwestern Louisiana, Murphy et al
- 2018 Cross-fostering as a conservation tool to augment endangered carnivore populations, Gese et al
- 2018 Using policy goals to evaluate red wolf reintroduction in eastern North Carolina, Christopher Serenari, et al
- 2018 Is the Red Wolf a Listable Unit Under the US Endangered Species Act?, Waples et al
- 2018 Size-assortative choice and mate availability influences hybridization between red wolves (Canis rufus) and coyotes (Canis latrans), Joey Hinton
- 2017 Range contractions of the world's large carnivores, Christopher Wolf, William J. Ripple
- 2017 Using diets of Canis breeding pairs to assess resource partitioning between sympatric red wolves and coyotes, Joseph Hinton et al, Journal of Mammalogy
- 2017 Effects Of Anthropogenic Mortality On Critically Endangered Red Wolf Canis Rufus Breeding Pairs Implications For Red Wolf Recovery, Joseph Hinton et al, Cambridge University Press
- 2017 Comment on “Whole genome sequence analysis shows two endemic species of North American wolf are admixtures of the coyote and gray wolf”, Hohenlohe et al, Science Advances
- 2016 Polling Finds North Carolina Voters Strongly Back Red Wolf Recovery (Tulchin Research)
- 2016 Whole-genome sequence analysis shows that two endemic species of North American wolf are admixtures of the coyote and gray wolf (vonHoldt et al, Science Advances)
- 2016 A SURVEY OF DISEASES IN CAPTIVE RED WOLVES (CANIS RUFUS), 1997–2012 by Kathryn E. Seeley, D.V.M. et al
- 2016 Describing a developing hybrid zone between red wolves and coyotes in eastern North Carolina, USA by Justin H. Bohling et al
- 2016 Survival and Population Size Estimates of the Red Wolf by Hinton et al
- 2016 Mitochondrial DNA Variation in Southeastern pre-Columbian canids by Brzeski et al (abstract only)
- 2015 Using the “placeholder” concept to reduce genetic introgression of an endangered carnivore
- 2015 Live Births from Domestic Dog (Canis familiaris) Embryos Produced by In Vitro Fertilization via the journal Public Library of Science ONE
- 2014 “Use it or Lose it”: Characterization, Implications, and Mitigation of Female Infertility in Captive Wildlife
- 2012 An account of the taxonomy of North American wolves from morphological and genetic analyses by Steven Chambers, Steven Fain, Bud Fazio, and Michael Amaral via North American Fauna
- 2011 A genome-wide perspective on the evolutionary history of enigmatic wolf-like canids via Genome Research
- 2006 Dynamics of hybridization and introgression in red wolves and coyotes by Fredrickson RJ, Hedrick PW via Conservation Biology
- 2007 Analyzing a Prospective Red Wolf (Canis rufus) Reintroduction Site for Suitable Habitat
- 2002 The Original Status of Wolves in Eastern North America by Robert M. Nowak via Southeastern Naturalist
- 2013 "The Secret World of Red Wolves: The Fight to Save North America's Other Wolf" by T. DeLene Beeland
- 2013 "Return of the Red Wolf: A Red Wolf Graphic Novel" by by Craig Standridge and Beth Graham
- 2003 “Restoration of the Red Wolf” by Michael K. Phillips, V. Gary Henry and Brian T. Kelly, via "Wolves: Behavior, Ecology, and Conservation," (Chapter 11)
- 1993 "Meant to Be Wild: The Struggle to Save Endangered Species Through Captive Breeding" by Jan DeBlieu
- Red Wolf Species Survival Plan
- Red Wolf Coalition
- U.S. Fish And Wildlife Service: Red Wolf Recovery Program
- Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium Red Wolf Species Survival Program