red wolf (
Canis rufus) is distinguished from the gray wolf
Canis lupus) and the coyote (
Canis latrans) by size
and coloring. Intermediate in size between coyotes and gray wolves,
red wolves average 45-80 pounds. They are mostly brown and buff
colored, sometimes with red shading around their ears, muzzle and
the backs of their legs. Red wolves are known to hunt individually
and in packs, eating white-tailed deer, raccoons and small mammals
such as rabbits and rodents. They have also been known to prey on
domestic pets and livestock, but in very small numbers. Similar
to gray wolves, red wolves live in the social structure of a pack,
with a defended territory, an alpha breeding pair and older offspring
that assist with pup rearing.
The proper taxonomic
designation for the red wolf has been a subject of debate among scientists for many
years. However, based on available research, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
legally designated the red wolf, Canis rufus, as a distinct species
and has, therefore, listed it as a protected species under federal law
(Endangered Species Act). The red wolf is also a red-listed species under the
International Union of the Conservation of Nature (IUCN). Recent advances in molecular genetics have
brought forward the fascinating proposal by some geneticists that the eastern
wolf, Canis lupus lycaon, (called the
eastern Canadian wolf or eastern timber wolf), may be a distinct species of
wolf and one, like the red wolf, that is not related to the gray wolf, Canis lupus. Additional, it has been
proposed that these two species, red wolf and eastern wolf, evolved in North
America along with the coyote, and are closely related to the “little wolf” – the
coyote, Canis latrans. The gray wolf
is not related to the coyote according to these studies. This is not just an
academic debate. It is important in terms of management issues and also in
terms of possible future recovery efforts in the Northeast.
Regardless of its exact taxonomic designation, the red wolf is
an animal with unique characteristics and adds to the overall biodiversity
of our wildlands. Under the Endangered Species Act, red wolves
are considered endangered and are classified as experimental and
nonessential, a designation which minimizes the infringement on private landowner
rights, yet provides managers the important tools to reintroduce
and manage the species.
The red wolf recovery project in the eastern United States has
gray wolf reintroduction projects in the western states.
gray wolves, red wolves face an imminent threat of
extinction. No wild populations of red wolves exist outside of the
eastern United States.
The fact that gray wolves still exist in large numbers in
throughout the northern hemisphere has facilitated
Until recently, research on red wolves was limited to
animals and the few wolves that once roamed wild in Texas
Options for red wolf release sites are limited due to the
human population of eastern states and lack of large
tracts of undeveloped
lands within the wolf's historic range. Although human
certainly increased throughout the gray wolf's range as
lands and wilderness areas in the United States and Canada
offer suitable options
for expanding the animal's territory.
Red wolves were once well established as a top predator throughout
the Southeast. Their original range is believed to be the entire
eastern forested region of North America from southeastern Canada
to the Gulf Coast. By 1920 the red wolf had been extirpated in most
of the southern states, and by 1970 less than 100 red wolves remained
in the entire United States, confined to a small area of coastal Texas and
Louisiana. Early bounties and indiscriminate killing caused the
rapid decline of red wolf numbers. Loss of habitat perpetuated this decline
in the mid 1900s as people cleared land for roads, livestock, agriculture,
logging and mining.
Red wolf recovery initially focused on preserving and expanding
the remaining wild red wolf population. However, as red wolf numbers
spiraled downward, coyote populations expanded eastward and established
a foothold in areas that had been dominated by wolves. When the
few remaining red wolves failed to find mates of their own species,
many mated with coyotes. As this hybridization increased, the number
of genetically pure red wolves decreased, further accelerating the
decline of the red wolf. As a result, recovery efforts shifted in
focus to capturing red wolves and breeding them in captivity, with a goal
of future reintroduction. By 1980 the last red wolf was captured,
and the species was declared extinct in the wild.
Captive breeding has since preserved genetically pure red wolves.
The red wolf recovery plan's goal is to maintain 330 genetically
pure wolves in captivity and 220 wolves in the wild, within at least
three self-sustaining populations.
With successful breeding, captive animals were first released in
the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge (ARNWR) in northeastern
North Carolina in 1987. ARNWR was an ideal site for reintroduction
because it is surrounded on three sides by large bodies of water
and holds low densities of humans, livestock and coyotes. These factors
minimized concerns over wolf predation on livestock and cross-breeding
with coyotes. Within their first year in ARNWR the wolves successfully
produced their first litter of pups in the wild. By 1993 captive
wolves had also been successfully released in the Pocosin Lakes
National Wildlife Refuge in North Carolina and Great Smoky Mountains
National Park in Tennessee, and on three island propagation sites off the
Atlantic and Gulf Coasts.
Reintroduction in northeastern North Carolina has been a success, with
a current population of about 100 free-ranging wolves. Efforts in the Great
Smoky Mountains, however, were less successful. Low to almost non-existent
pup survival prevented the released wolves from establishing and expanding
home ranges and developing family groups within park boundaries. Biologists
suspected disease, such as parvovirus, predation, malnutrition, and parasites
as contributing factors. Reintroduction in the park was controversial from
the start because of bordering livestock operations. Red wolves were responsible
for depredation of a few calves on a lease operation within the park. The wolves
were regularly seen on the outskirts of residential areas. Twenty-six of the 37
red wolves released in the Great Smoky Mountains between 1992 and 1996 died or
were recaptured after straying outside of park boundaries onto private lands.
In October of 1998, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Park Service
announced plans to recapture all red wolves that remained in the park and relocate
them to northeastern North Carolina, ending efforts to restore red wolves in the
Great Smoky Mountains. Horn Island was removed from the island propagation program
that same year because of increasing probability of wolf interactions with humans.
Other red wolves have been released on islands in the Atlantic and along
the Gulf coasts as steppingstones between captivity and the wild. Although these
islands are not large enough to provide for the needs of more than a few red wolves
at a time, they provide the opportunity for them to breed and exist in the wild in
order to produce animals for future mainland reintroductions. Approximately, 4 red
wolves reside at two island propagation sites.
Today, due to an aggressive preservation effort mandated by the Endangered Species
Act, red wolf numbers are slowly rising, and the wolves again roam wild through parts of their
historic range in eastern North America. At this time, there is a total captive wolf population (including pups)
of 198 located at 41 Species Survival Plan captive management facilities
throughout the United States. Approximately 941 pups have been born in
the captive program since 1977 with most fostered into wild wolf dens. An estimated 700 pups have been born
in the wild over four generations since the program's inception in
The future of the red wolf is not yet secure. More than half of the population exists
in captivity, and efforts to reintroduce them continually faces challenges.
Nowak, R.M., M.K. Phillips, V.G. Henry, W.C. Hunter, and R. Smith.
1992. The origin and fate of the red wolf. Found in L.N. Carbyn
et al. eds Ecology and Conservation of Wolves in a Changing World.
Circumpolar Institute, Occasional Publication No. 35, 642 pages.
Steinhart, P. 1996. The Company of Wolves. Knopf, Inc., New York,
NY. 374 pages.
US Fish and Wildlife Service. 1989. Red Wolf Recovery Plan. U.S.
Fish and Wildlife Service, Atlanta, GA. 110 pages.