Frequently Asked Questions
1.) Why is the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) restoring red wolves (Canis rufus)?
The essential reasons are to prevent extinction of the species and to restore the ecosystems in which red wolves occurred, as mandated by the Endangered Species Act (ESA) of 1973. The ESA found that endangered and threatened species are of aesthetic, ecological, educational, historical, recreational and scientific value to the Nation and its people. It is important to save all members of an ecosystem, including predators, if we intend to conserve the environment and be good stewards of the land. Lessons learned in the Red Wolf Recovery Program have served as a model for carnivore conservation worldwide.
Photo credit: J. Mittlesteadt
2.) What do red wolves look like?
Red wolves are mostly brown and buff colored with some black along their backs, often with a reddish color on their ears, head and legs. Red wolves are smaller than gray wolves and larger than coyotes. Adult red wolves range in weight from about 53 to 84 pounds. Red wolves have tall pointed ears and long, slender legs with large feet. Red wolves stand about 26 inches at their shoulder and are about 4 feet long from the tip of the nose to the tip of the tail.
Photo credit: J. Froschauer Photo credit: B. McPhee
3.) Did red wolves ever exist in North Carolina?
Based on fossil and archaeological evidence, the original red wolf range extended throughout the southeast, from as far north as southern New England, south to Florida and as far west as Texas and central Missouri. At least one archaeological specimen has been found in North Carolina. In addition, court records from eastern North Carolina indicate that wolf bounties were paid from 1768 to 1789. The Cherokee Indians called the red wolf, “Wa’ya.”
4.) How many additional reintroduced wild populations are needed to achieve recovery? Are any new populations in new areas in the works?
The recovery objectives in the Red Wolf Recovery Plan/Species Survival Plan (USFWS 1990) and Red Wolf 5-Year Status Review (USFWS 2007) are to establish and maintain at least three red wolf populations via restoration within the historic range of the red wolf. Since the program was discontinued in the Great Smoky Mountain National Park in 1998, there are been no additional reintroduced populations. The Red Wolf Recovery Program is currently working with partners to identify additional areas for future restored wild populations.
5.) Do red wolves hybridize with coyotes?
Red wolves, gray wolves, domestic dogs and coyotes are capable of interbreeding and producing fertile offspring. Social structures and territoriality usually prevent such interbreeding. By 1960, widespread persecution of predators and the destruction of habitat had caused a decline in red wolf numbers and the coyote began to migrate into the southeast. As a result, some of the remaining red wolves were unable to find mates of their own species and they began to hybridize with the more abundant coyote. Hybridization is usually accepted as the final factor that resulted in the near extinction of the red wolf. Given a choice, red wolves prefer red wolves as mates. The primary recovery focus is to protect and promote the growth of a self-sustaining, non-hybridizing population of red wolves in the wild and sustain an active captive component.
6.) How many red wolves currently exist?
Red wolf numbers continue to fluctuate with annual birth and death rates. The wild red wolf population in eastern North Carolina is estimated at nearly 100 animals, many of which are outfitted with radio collars, inhabit a 5-county area covering 1.7 million acres. Approximately 175 red wolves are held in 40+ captive breeding facilities participating in the Red Wolf Species Survival Plan across the United States.
Photo credit: USFWS/B. Bartel
7.) How does the USFWS keep track of the wolves?
A red wolf can “range” anywhere from 500 acres to 46,000 acres, depending on such factors as available habitat and prey, pack size and season of the year. Each red wolf that is captured or released is outfitted with a collar containing a radio transmitter, which emits pulse signals or "beeps" that biologists can read with a radio receiver. On the ground, wildlife biologists can receive a telemetry signal from up to 1.5 miles in good conditions. Aerial telemetry allows a range of 20 miles using fixed-wing aircraft. These signals enable the biologists to track red wolf locations and activities. Monitoring of these signals can vary from twice daily to once a week, depending on specific circumstances. Since the estimated lifespan for red wolves is up to 15 years in captivity, and six or seven in the wild, their collars must be changed every few years due to battery life.
8.) Are red wolves a threat to humans?
There have been no documented cases of healthy wild red wolves attacking humans in North America, despite 500 years of historical coexistence. Wild red wolves are shy and tend to stay away from humans. However, if threatened or cornered, wolves are capable of injuring humans. Therefore, all wildlife including red wolves should not be approached in order to avoid injury to the animal or the people involved. They are primarily nocturnal (active at night) and communicate by scent marking, vocalizations (including howling), facial expressions and body postures.
9.) What do red wolves eat?
Although the exact diet of red wolves varies depending on available prey, it usually consists of a combination of white-tailed deer, raccoons and smaller mammals such as rabbits, rodents and nutria. The red wolf is an opportunistic feeder and can travel up to 20 miles a day or more to find food which can be consumed at a rate of two to five pounds daily.
Photo credit: USFWS/B. Crawford
10.) Do red wolves live and / or hunt in packs?
The primary social structure of red wolves is simply defined as an extended family unit or "pack". Red wolves tend to form pair-bonds for life and mate once a year in February. Pups are born about 63 days later in April or May and well hidden in dens that can be located in hollow trees, stream banks and sand knolls. Dens have also been found in holes dug in the ground near downed logs or forest debris piles. A typical pack consists of five to eight members, which includes a breeding adult pair and offspring of different years. Wolf packs have specific territories that they actively defend against other canids (dog-like animals), including other wolves. The pack is a very close-knit social group. In fact, older offspring will often assist the breeding pair in pup rearing. Almost all offspring between 1 and 2 years of age will leave the pack or "disperse" to form their own pack. A pack consists of two or more animals and approximately 18-22 packs exist in the recovery zone.
Photo credit: USFWS/B. Crawford
11.) What are the biggest threats to red wolves?
Currently, the wild red wolf population faces a series of threats that originally caused the red wolf to decline across its historic range starting with early settlement of North America. Early persecution and habitat fragmentation originally reduced red wolf numbers to the point of near-extinction, and contributed to the interbreeding with coyotes. Human-caused mortality (e.g., vehicle strikes, gunshots) can remove breeders from the wild wolf population. These threats, combined with habitat fragmentation from increasing development, allow coyotes to expand into the recovery area. Coyotes may directly compete with wolves for resources, as well as introduce diseases, and dilute wolf genetic lines through hybridization.
12.) What does a red wolf on private land mean to the landowner?
All wild red wolves are classified as experimental nonessential under the ESA. This designation is not intended to have an effect on individual landowner rights. In fact, legally designated habitat cannot be established for experimental nonessential species under the ESA. In the case of livestock or domestic pet depredation, relaxed regulations were passed in 1995, which allow landowners to take (kill) red wolves while depredation is occurring, provided that freshly wounded livestock or pets are evident. There are also mechanisms for landowners to be monetarily compensated if they choose to become involved with red wolf recovery. Approximately 60% of the red wolf population can be found on private lands within the recovery area. Red wolves generate benefits for landowners by preying on species such as deer, raccoons and nutria that can be pests on farms. Additionally, the presence of a pack of red wolves is likely to limit the distribution of coyotes in that area. Cooperating with private landowners is an integral component of the Red Wolf Recovery Program.
13.) How are red wolves different from other wolves?
Like the gray (Canis lupus), the red wolf is a canid native to North America. Weighing 45 to 80 pounds, red wolves are about five feet long from nose to tail and stand roughly 26 inches at the shoulder. Gray wolves can vary in size depending on the subspecies, but typically average between 80 to 100 pounds. Gray wolves are approximately five to six feet in length and stand around 30 inches at the shoulder. The species also differ in historical distribution, with red wolves being found in the central and southeastern portions of the U.S., while different subspecies of gray wolf were distributed in other parts of the country. A recent scientific article by Chambers and colleagues in 2012 “An account of the taxonomy of North American wolves from morphological and genetic analyses” provides updated distribution maps for various wolf species.
14.) Why can't the captive wolves at the Red Wolf Healthcare and Education Center be released into the wild?
The wolves currently on exhibit at the Red Wolf Healthcare and Education Center have lived in captivity their entire lives (the male is 11 years old, the female is 10 years old). As a result, they are more habituated to human activities. Any lack of fear to humans could potentially result in wolf-human conflicts in the wild. For their safety, they remain in captivity where they can help educate people on red wolf conservation and recovery efforts.
Photo credit: USFWS/B. Bartel
From more red wolf updates and news, please visit the Red Wolf Recovery Program Facebook page (daily postings) or our blog, Return of the Red Wolf: Tales from the Swamp (weekly updates).