History of Red Wolves

Tala is one of the red wolves living at Wolf Haven.

Tala is one of the red wolves living at Wolf Haven.

The red wolf (Canis rufus) is one of the most endangered canids in the world. The red wolf’s historical distribution was once thought to be limited to the southeastern United States. Recent studies in canid genetics have suggested that the red wolf’s historic range extended further north into the northeastern U.S. and on into the Algonquin Provincial Park in southern Ontario, Canada. Red wolves, like their gray cousins, were victims of predator extermination programs and habitat loss. The most serious threat to the existence of red wolves, however, was not an issue for gray wolves at all. As gray wolves were eradicated in the western and northern U.S., coyotes experienced a population explosion and radically expanded their range east. Due to lack of available breeding partners, as the red wolf population fell to extreme low numbers, coyotes and red wolves began to interbreed. By the late 1960’s, there were very few true red wolves remaining in the coastal areas of Texas and Louisiana.

History of the recovery program

Following their listing under the Preservation Act, and subsequently the Endangered Species Act (ESA), an attempt was made to capture remaining red wolves to initiate a captive breeding program. Of the 400 animals captured between 1973 and 1980, only 43 were sent to the first breeding facility, Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium in Tacoma, Washington. Only 14 of the 43 animals were eventually determined to be pure red wolves (rather than coyote hybrids) and were used to establish the population of red wolves that exists today. The first captive-born red wolves were born in 1977.

The first wolf reintroduction

The red wolf reintroduction was, in many ways, the pilot program for other large wolf reintroduction projects that eventually took place in the United States: gray wolves in the northern Rocky Mountains (Yellowstone and central Idaho) and Mexican gray wolves in the southwest. The reintroduced red wolves were the first wolf population to receive the nonessential, experimental designation, created by a 1982 revision to the ESA. Before captive-bred wolves are released into the wild, they are acclimated (prepared for life in the wild following life in captivity) near where they are to be released. Four pairs of red wolves were released into Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge (ARNWR) in North Carolina in 1987.

Red wolves today

There are currently fewer than 35 free-ranging (wild) red wolves in eastern North Carolina. The recovery area has grown and now encompasses 1.7 million acres, including four national wildlife refuges, state land, private land and a Department of Defense bombing range. The red wolf recovery program has very different issues than the other wolf reintroduction programs in the United States.

Predator and prey

The reintroduced red wolves prey primarily on white tailed deer, raccoon and rabbits. They also eat rodents, including a non-native pest called nutria. Originally from South America, nutria were imported into Louisiana in the 1930’s as a fur bearer. After being either intentionally or accidentally released, the nutria population exploded across the southeast. Nutria can cause severe damage to wetlands, degrade the banks of waterways, and wreak havoc on crops.

Hybridization continues

The success of the red wolf program has been haunted by one of the key factors in the demise of this species – the tendency of red wolves to breed with coyotes. The ARNWR (primary release spot) was originally thought to be free of coyotes. As the reintroduced red wolves successfully expanded their population and coyotes continued to move east, it became apparent that red wolves and coyotes were once again hybridizing. Innovative adaptive management techniques have been created and implemented with some success to mitigate hybridization and to ensure the integrity of the red wolf species.

Propagation islands

Something else that has been tried by the red wolf program is the use of propagation islands. Captive-born red wolves have been relocated to remote islands off the Atlantic and Gulf coasts. While the islands are not appropriate for large or long-term red wolf populations, they facilitate the propagation of red wolves born in the wild in a controlled situation. Wild-born red wolves are then available to be introduced into the North Carolina population.

Cross-fostering wolves

Another innovative plan the red wolf program has tried is called pup cross-fostering. In the case of the red wolf program, cross-fostering is taking very young pups, either from the propagation island wolves or captive breeding facilities and introducing them into the dens of wild wolves. The purpose of cross-fostering is to increase genetic diversity in the wild population.

Captive breeding

The red wolf recovery program has been a pioneer for wolf recovery in the captive population as well. Artificial insemination allows the sharing of genetically valuable material while minimizing stress to the animals, reducing costs, and facilitating breeding of at multiple locations nationwide. Another benefit of artificial insemination to the wolves is allowing a genetically valuable male to remain bonded to his mate while donating his genes to multiple females and their litters.

Red wolf facts

        • Physical Appearance: Red wolves’ pelage is cinnamon-red often peppered with black and gray hairs down the back.
        • Size and Weight: Red wolves have a head and body length of 3 – 4 feet and a weigh from 45-65 lbs.
        • Birth: Mating occurs from January – April. The young are born in the spring. Gestation period is 63 days, and there is one litter per year.
        • Diet: The red wolf’s diet consists of white tail deer and smaller mammals such as raccoons, rabbits and nutria.
        • Pack: Just as with the gray wolves, red wolf packs usually consist of a breeding pair and more than one generation of offspring. Pack size is typically smaller than gray wolves because they are not taking down large prey, like elk and bison. Again, because they are hunting smaller prey, it is believed that red wolves often hunt alone or in pairs.