Promoting wolf conservation since 1999

Red Wolf - History

The red wolf 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.

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 declared red wolves extinct in the wild in 1980.

By 1987, enough red wolves were bred in captivity to begin a restoration program on Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge in northeastern North Carolina. Since then, the experimental population area has expanded to include three national wildlife refuges, a Department of Defense bombing range, state-owned lands, and private property, spanning a total of 1.7 million acres.

An estimated 24 red wolves roam the wilds of northeastern North Carolina and about 200 comprise the captive breeding program, still an essential element of red wolf recovery. Interbreeding with the coyote (an exotic species not native to North Carolina) has been recognized as the most significant and detrimental threat affecting recovery of red wolves in their native habitat. Currently, adaptive management efforts are making good progress in reducing the threat of coyotes while building the wild red wolf population in northeastern North Carolina.

Yet 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 beenexpanded to include additional federal and private lands, and now encompasses approximating 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 (50 – 75) since the late 1990s.

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 are the three island sites now 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 cattle depredations were largely a result of inadequate cattle husbandry practices and damage to fencing from flooding. The cattle operation is being evaluated for needed changes and another family group of wolves has been released in an adjacent area.

Biologists continue to monitor the two reintroduced populations of red wolves. 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 just four years ago to fewer than 30 today.

Red wolves are highly endangered, but we still 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.