Red Wolf Recovery Program
Southeast Region

Questions and Answers

Father wolf with Pups

Photo Credit: Greg Koch

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 predator conservation worldwide.


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.


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.”

A map showing the historic range of red wolves spanning from the northeastern to southern United States

Map of the red wolf historic range.


4.)  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.


5.)  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 50-75 animals, many of which are outfitted with radio collars, that range across a 5-county area covering 1.7 million acres.
Approximately 175 red wolves are held in about 40 captive breeding facilities across the United States .


6.)  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.


7.)  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.


8.)  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.


9.)  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.


10.)  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.


Last Updated: 9/23/15