Red Wolf Recovery Program
- Taxon: Mammal
- Range: Eastern North Carolina
- Status: First listed as “threatened with extinction” under the Endangered Species Preservation Act of 1966 in 1967. Currently listed as an endangered species under the Endangered Species Act of 1973.
- Population estimate as of July 2022:
- Known/collared (wild): 10
- Total estimate (wild): 19-21
- Species Survival Plan (captive): 243
Red wolf recovery program updates
In 2016, the Service made increasing the size of the Species Survival Plan (SSP) population (the captive population) a priority. The Service stated it would provide resources to the SSP and work with the SSP and other partners to expand space capacity. To date, the Service has provided $771,000 through FY18, FY19, and FY20 Recovery Challenge Grants for the construction of additional red wolf enclosures.
In 2018, the Service proposed a revised 10(j) rule to replace the existing regulations, published in 1995, governing the nonessential experimental population in eastern North Carolina (NC NEP). In 2021, the Service withdrew this proposal. Thus, red wolves in the NC NEP will continue to be managed under existing regulations, as clarified by relevant court orders. Management under the 1995 rule recognizes the Service’s authority to release additional wolves and conduct adaptive management. The NC NEP will continue to encompass the five counties of the Albemarle Peninsula (Beaufort, Dare, Hyde, Tyrrell, and Washington counties). A summary of management activities can be found below under Management.
In July 2021, the Service assembled a new Red Wolf Recovery Team to update the current Red Wolf Recovery Plan, last revised in 1990. The Recovery Team will follow the Service’s Recovery Planning and Implementation Process, a three-document approach consisting of:
- A Species Status Assessment (SSA) – Completed in 2018, this document evaluates red wolf viability and provides the foundational biological information to develop and support a recovery plan.
- A Recovery Plan – A concise, visionary document that contains the elements required under section 4(f)(1)(B) of the ESA: recovery criteria, recovery actions, and time and cost estimates.
- A Recovery Implementation Strategy – An itemization of the prioritized on-the-ground activities needed to implement the actions identified in the recovery plan.
The final Recovery Plan will be completed by February 28, 2023. Development of the Recovery Implementation Strategy will follow.
Studies are underway to identify the possibility of red wolf ancestry still remaining in the wild in southwestern Louisiana and southeastern Texas. These studies follow-up on previous studies (Murphy et al. 2018 and Heppenheimer et al. 2018) that suggest red wolf ancestry may still exist on the landscape in Louisiana and Texas.
The recovery of the red wolf began as a remarkable conservation success story. By 1972, the species was reduced to a small coastal area in southeast Texas and southwest Louisiana (see map above). From 1973-1980, the Service began trapping wild canids in the area to prevent extinction of the species and establish a captive breeding program with the intention of reintroducing the species in the wild. In the early 1970’s, Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium, in association with the Service, established a captive-breeding program using 14 red wolves. After numbers continued to decline due to human persecution and habitat loss, the red wolf was subsequently declared extinct in the wild in 1980.
In 1984, the captive breeding program was approved by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) as the Red Wolf Species Survival Plan (SSP) program, which provides oversight for maintaining a healthy and genetically diverse stock under human care. By this time, there were approximately 63 individuals in the SSP population and the program was actively growing the population through the coordinated efforts of the SSP partner facilities, making reintroduction efforts possible.
Recovery efforts in the wild began in northeastern North Carolina with the establishment of the NC NEP under section 10(j) of the ESA and release of red wolves from the SSP population, on Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) in 1987. Between 1987 and 1994, over 60 adult red wolves from the SSP population were released into the NC NEP. By the mid-1990s, red wolves in the wild maintained territories, formed packs, and successfully bred. By 2011, this reintroduction effort culminated in a known population (e.g. radio-collared) of 89 red wolves and in 2012 an estimated population as high as 120 red wolves within the five-county NC NEP area. This was the first time a large carnivore had been declared extinct in the wild and then reintroduced in the United States. It set the stage for several subsequent reintroduction efforts that were modeled after the Red Wolf Recovery Program, such as gray wolves in Yellowstone and central Idaho, Mexican wolves in the southwestern U.S., California condors, and black-footed ferrets. Several innovative recovery tactics were first attempted by this program, with a great deal of success, including pup fostering and coyote sterilizations.
In 1990, the Service established an island propagation site for the red wolf at St. Vincent NWR, an isolated island off the Gulf Coast of Florida. The role of this site is to propagate red wolf pups in a somewhat controlled, but natural environment that will provide them “wild experience” as juveniles for the purpose of being strategically translocated into the NC NEP.
Captive breeding saved the red wolf from extinction and is an essential component of red wolf recovery. Past releases of red wolves from the SSP population into the NC NEP helped the wild red wolf population reach a peak of 120 animals in 2012. Although captive red wolves are located throughout the country at different SSP facilities, they are managed as a single population. They are routinely transferred among the facilities to breed according to genetic management objectives to help maintain the health and diversity of an increasing population.
Human contact with captive red wolves is minimized to promote avoidance behavior and to support pair bonding, breeding, pup rearing, and healthy pack. They are evaluated and selected for release to the wild based on their genetic makeup, reproductive performance, behavior, and physical suitability.
As of July 2022, there are approximately 243 red wolves in 49 SSP facilities across the country. In the 2021-2022 breeding season, 28 breeding pairs were established and 46 pups in 13 litters were born - of which 29 survived, adding to the SSP population. With additional space capacity, and to increase the population, the draft number of breeding pairs for the 2022-2023 breeding season increased to 39 pairs.
Under Section 10(j) of the ESA, the Service can designate reintroduced populations established outside of the species’ current range, but within its historical range, as “experimental.” This designation allows the Service to reestablish self-sustaining populations when doing so fosters its conservation and recovery.
Currently, there is only one wild population of red wolves, the NC NEP in eastern North Carolina, which encompasses five counties of the Albemarle Peninsula (Beaufort, Dare, Hyde, Tyrrell, and Washington counties). Management of the NC NEP red wolves is conducted in accordance with the 10(j) rule published in 1995, as clarified by relevant court orders. Notably, this includes a permanent injunction prohibiting take of red wolves either directly or by landowner authorization, without first demonstrating that the red wolf is a threat to human safety or the safety of livestock or pets. Additionally, the 1995 rule recognizes the Service’s authority to release additional red wolves and conduct adaptive management within the NC NEP.
Past reintroductions into the NC NEP helped support a wild red wolf population as high as 120 animals (89 radio collared) in 2012. After peaking, the population declined dramatically. Human-caused mortality (e.g., gunshots, vehicle strikes) has been the leading cause of this decline. Hybridization with coyotes, which is exacerbated by human-caused mortality, particularly in breeding pairs, and low red wolf population numbers also played a key role in this decline.
Today, the total population is estimated to be between 15 and 17, with 8 known via active radio-collars. The total population is an estimate based on known radio-collared red wolves, adult red wolves with radio collars that quit functioning relatively recently that are likely still on the landscape, and an additional few un-collared adult red wolves that are thought to be on the landscape based on reported sightings and remote sensing cameras, as well as pups that have not reached a year of age and cannot be radio-collared. Additionally, due to declining population size and the mortality of one or both red wolves in established breeding pairs, there were no known red wolf pups born in the wild in 2019, 2020 or 2021, which is the first time that has occurred in over 30 years.
The Service is committed to seeing red wolf numbers increased within the NC NEP. The Service will continue to collar all captured red wolves with bright orange collars to help the public distinguish them from coyotes. Currently, all known, collared adult red wolves have orange collars. The Service is also continuing releases of red wolves from the SSP population into the NC NEP and conducting adaptive management. See below for management activities implemented to attempt to create red wolf breeding pairs in eastern North Carolina.
2021-2022 Management Activities
Eastern North Carolina Red Wolf Population (ENC RWP)
During November-December 2021, nine captive adult red wolves (two pairs and a family group of five – a breeding pair, two yearlings and one pup) were transferred to the Service from Red Wolf Species Survival Program/Saving Animals from Extinction (SSP/SAFE) facilities and held at the Service’s remote captive facility to begin acclimation for planned release into the wild.
During January-February 2022, movable, hard-sided acclimation pens were constructed in remote locations of Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge (ARNWR) and Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge (PLNWR).
During January-February 2022, all captive-born red wolves to be released were collared with orange GPS/VHF collars with orange reflective material as they were moved into the remote acclimation pens where they were to be released from, at a later date.
On February 1, 2022, the Service hosted a virtual public meeting to talk about the status of red wolf recovery, the planned release of captive adult red wolves, coyote sterilization, Prey for the Pack, and increased community engagement. During that meeting, a recommitment to the Red Wolf Recovery Program was announced, including the ENC RWP.
In early February 2022, a wild female red wolf was captured on private land with landowner permission. Service staff took this opportunity to attempt pairing her with a captive male red wolf from the Red Wolf SSP/SAFE for release together within her territory on PLNWR. This brought the number of adult red wolves to be released to 10. The female was the last known wild red wolf without an orange collar. All known adult red wolves are currently fitted with an orange collar.
Also in early February 2022, mobile electronic message signs, purchased by the Service and the North Carolina Wildlife Federation, were placed along highways and roads in closest proximity to remote red wolf release sites. When needed, these signs were moved to areas where tracking/monitoring indicated red wolf use near roads. Areas where signs were placed included multiple locations on Highway 64, Highway 264, Highway 94 and Shore Drive.
From early February through early April 2022, the release of captive red wolves from remote acclimation pens began:
- February 8, 2022 – Red wolf pair (2272F and 2141M) was released on north ARNWR.
- March 15, 2022 – Red wolf pair (2262F and 2157M) was released on south ARNWR.
- March 31, 2022 – The family group of 5 red wolves (2133F, 2145M, 2340F, 2339M and 2384M) was released in central PLNWR.
- April 4, 2022 – The wild female red wolf (2280F) and captive born male red wolf (2267M) were released within her territory on east PLNWR.
Every newly released red wolf was tracked, monitored and their status assessed on a daily basis following release.
Service staff contacted landowners of private lands where red wolves were known to be spending time, based on tracking/monitoring. This was done to make landowners aware of the presence of red wolves and to address any potential concerns or issues. In addition, Service personnel promptly responded to all calls, texts, or emails received from landowners regarding their concerns, sightings, and potential issues, including addressing time sensitive calls – 24/7.
On March 10, 2022, the male red wolf (2141M) released on north ARNWR was captured because he had moved into a residential area and would not leave. Upon capture, it was determined he had an injury to one of his legs (possibly a trapping injury) and was transferred to North Carolina State University School of Veterinary Medicine for treatment and recovery. On May 12, 2022 after he was medically cleared by veterinarians, he was transferred back to the Service for the last few weeks of his recuperation. He was placed in a remote acclimation pen on south ARNWR before being re-released into the wild on June 6, 2022. Despite being re-released significantly further south than his original release location, he returned to the same town where he was previously captured. On June 22, 2022, he was recaptured and returned to captivity due to concerns over his ability to survive in the wild and his complacency around human development, despite repeated efforts to deter his behavior.
On March 11, 2022, the female (2272F) released on north ARNWR was found deceased after Service staff received a mortality notification from her GPS collar with general location information. No broken bones or bullet fragments were detected on the initial x-rays. A necropsy was performed, but results were unable to determine a cause of death.
On April 2, 2022, Service staff received a report that a red wolf was seen along a highway. Service staff tracked the area and shortly afterwards, found the female red wolf (2262F) that was released on south ARNWR in the area of the report with no visual or apparent injuries. She was tracked closely throughout the day in a wooded area as she continued to move. A GPS point was received for her the following morning on April 3, 2022, but despite extensive searching for her on multiple occasions from the ground and air, no VHF signal or GPS points have been received for her since that day. As a result, her fate is currently unknown.
On April 11, 2022, the 2-year-old male red wolf (2339M) released on central PLNWR as part of the family group was captured. He was returned to captivity due to concern for his survival in the wild, based on his continued behavior in close proximity to people and development, despite repeated efforts to deter his behavior.
On April 15, 2022, the male red wolf (2267M) released on east PLNWR was discovered dead on private property during routine daily radio telemetry tracking. This death is under an active investigation by law enforcement.
On April 19, 2022, a wild red wolf litter of 6 pups (4F, 2M) was confirmed on ARNWR from red wolf pair 2225F and 2323F – the first wild red wolf litter born since 2018! 2225F is a resident wild red wolf and 2323M was born in the wild on St. Vincent National Wildlife Refuge (SVNWR), a red wolf island propagation site off the Gulf Coast of Florida. 2323M was translocated by the Service to the ENC RWP in late 2020 and was released onto ARNWR in February 2021.
On April 20, 2022, the yearling male red wolf (2384M) from the family group released on central PLNWR was reported dead from a gunshot wound on private land. This death is under active investigation by law enforcement.
On May 8, 2022, a notification was received via the GPS collar that the breeding female (2133F) from the family group released on central PLNWR was in mortality mode. An immediate field investigation located her. Her cause of death is currently undetermined, but it is suspected that her death is the result of a vehicular strike. Necropsy results are pending.
On May 10, 2022, the breeding male (2145M) from the family group was captured and removed from the wild due to substantial concerns that he would be unable to survive in the wild as a result of his unwillingness to leave developed areas and a concerning complacency around people, despite repeated efforts to deter his behavior.
On June 14, 2022, a notification was received via the GPS collar that the two-year old female (2340F) from the family group released on central PLNWR was in mortality mode on private land. An immediate field investigation located her. A necropsy is pending and this death is under active investigation by law enforcement.
On June 27, 2022, during routine tracking/monitoring, the male red wolf (2157M) released from south ARNWR was found in mortality mode on county property adjacent to ARNWR. There were no indications of the cause of death. Necropsy results are pending.
During capture operations (December 2021 through early April 2022):
- Two of the four pups fostered from Akron Zoo into a wild den on May 1, 2021 were caught; both were females (2359F and 2361F). Both were collared with orange VHF collars and released near where they were captured.
- As a result of the Service’s trapping efforts during this time period, 12 additional coyotes were sterilized and released back to where they were captured (including on private land with prior landowner permission) under a permit issued by NCWRC. They were fitted with white VHF radio collars. There are currently 24 sterilized coyotes with active radio collars being tracked/monitored within the ENC RWP.
Service staff have continued to develop additional Prey for the Pack agreements that, when completed, will add just under 16,000 acres to the program in key locations adjacent to PLNWR. Prey for the Pack agreements are tailored to each landowner and include technical and financial assistance to them to implement habitat improvement projects that benefit the landowner and wildlife. Each agreement includes a commitment by the landowner to allow red wolves to use their property without harassment. Depending on the comfort of the landowner, additional activities, such as trapping and coyote sterilization, may also be included.
Service staff have worked closely with multiple local, regional and national media outlets on articles, news stories, and videos to get the word out about the release of red wolves and red wolf recovery in general. Outlets include, but are not limited to, Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom, National Geographic, CBS News Sunday Morning, Coastal Review, and Right of Passage, among others.
St. Vincent National Wildlife Refuge, Florida (SVNWR)
In October 2021, a captive male red wolf was transferred from the SSP/SAFE to SVNWR and placed in an acclimation pen within the territory of the resident wild female red wolves.
On January 15, 2022, the male was released and paired with one of the wild females. Remote camera footage from SVNWR indicated mating between the breeding pair. Potential denning is suspected but a litter has not been confirmed.
Summary of releases
|Year|| # of
|# of Pups
|# of Known
(end of year)
C = Captivity
I = Island Propagation Site
S = Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Adults are categorized as red wolves 3 years of age or older. Subadults are red wolves that are greater than 6 months old and less than 3 years old. Pups are red wolves less than 6 months old.
1Origin of Red Wolves Released or Fostered
2The methodology used to determine the population estimate of the NC NEP has varied over the course of time based on the size of the population to yield the most accurate estimates possible.
3Information as of 7/15/2022
** Specific information about mortality location is not released as it may provide sensitive species occurrence data. **
Outreach and education
Interested in learning how to help red wolves? Check out our fact sheet here.
Partnership coordination calls
Every quarter, the Service and its partners in red wolf recovery meet via a conference call to provide updates on the status of red wolf related actions. The purpose of these calls is to:
- provide a forum for regular and effective coordination on current actions and collaborative efforts among all partners in red wolf recovery, and
- provide other interested parties and the public with updates on the status of red wolf conservation efforts.
Updates the Service provides on these calls can be found below in our Documents section.
On Dec.10, 2019, the Service held a joint public information session with the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission regarding the red wolf recovery efforts and management of canids on the Albemarle Peninsula. The goal was to inform residents living in and around the ﬁve-county NC NEP area in eastern North Carolina (Beaufort, Dare, Hyde, Tyrrell and Washington counties) about ongoing work and plans for canid management. Plans for additional sessions were interrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic.
On February 1, 2022, the Service held a virtual informational meeting and listening session on the revitalization of red wolf recovery efforts as well as the transfer and upcoming releases of nine red wolves into the wild in the NC NEP. The presentation from the meeting is posted below, along with a recording and transcript.
- Public Meeting Presentation
- Video Recording
- Questions and Answers from the Public Meeting Presentation
Prey for the Pack – Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program
Prey for the Pack is a new habitat improvement program through the Services’ Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program, in collaboration with the North Carolina Wildlife Federation, and is available to private landowners interested in and committed to improving wildlife habitats on their property. The program will help provide both technical and ﬁnancial support to private landowners to help promote and implement habitat improvement projects that beneﬁt both the landowner and the wildlife that depend on the resource, speciﬁcally to promote habitat for red wolf prey species. In exchange for ﬁnancial and technical support, landowners will allow for the presence of red wolves on their private lands, un-harassed. For more information contact Luke Lolies, Wildlife Biologist/Private Lands Biologist at email@example.com or (252) 256-3676, or Joe Madison, Program Manager - NC Red Wolf Population at firstname.lastname@example.org or (252) 475-8259.
The Red Wolf Center – Columbia, North Carolina
The Red Wolf Center located just outside Columbia, North Carolina, is a public education center that houses red wolf displays and a live red wolf pair in a viewing enclosure. The Red Wolf Center is a collaborative effort between the Service, the North Carolina Wildlife Federation and National Wildlife Refuge Association. The Red Wolf Center also offers red wolf educational talks to school and other groups. To learn more about the Red Wolf Center, schedule a tour or a presentation, or facilities hours, contact Katerina Ramos at Pocosin Lakes NWR at (252) 796-3004 ext. 222.
Red Wolf Hotline
For information, questions or to report suspected red wolf sightings call the Red Wolf Hotline at 1-855-4WOLVES (496-5837) or email@example.com.
- Red wolf listed as “threatened with extinction” under the Endangered Species Preservation Act
- Red wolves first maintained in captivity at Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium in Tacoma, Washington
- Endangered Species Act becomes federal law
- Recovery program established; captive breeding program initiated
- First litter of red wolf pups born in breeding program at Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium
- First successful experimental release, tracking, and recapture of red wolves on Bulls Island, South Carolina, solidifies reintroduction techniques
- Over 400 canids captured in wild
- Red wolf declared extinct in the wild
- AZA Species Survival Plan established
- Early documentation of coyotes in eastern NC
- Nonessential experimental population (NEP) in eastern NC established (10(j) rule)
- First release of red wolves in NEP (Alligator River NWR)
- First litter of red wolf pups born in the wild at Alligator River NWR
- NEP in Great Smokey Mountains National Park (GSMNP) established (10(j) rule)
- Releases begin at GSMNP
- First red wolves born in the wild in GSMNP NEP
- Publication of an amendment to the 10(j) rule governing the NC NEP to address private landowner concerns about reintroduced red wolves
- GSMNP NEP ended due to low pup survival and the inability of red wolves to establish home ranges within the Park (e.g., emigration of red wolves to lower elevations with greater prey availability).
- Coyotes/hybridization most imminent threat
- Adaptive management plan (AMP) implemented to address red wolf/coyote hybridization
- Increase in red wolf mortality due to gunshot
- North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission (NCWRC) temporary rule allows night hunting of coyotes with artificial light across state; puts red wolves at risk
- Court suspends night hunting of coyote with lights within NC NEP
- Service recognizes need to improve management of NC NEP
- NCWRC permanent rule allows coyote hunting on private land day or night, day hunting on public lands without a permit and night hunting with a permit
- NCWRC and Service sign Canid Management Agreement
- Independent evaluation of the NC NEP conducted by the Wildlife Management Institute
- Court ordered ban on all coyote hunting in NC NEP (preliminary injunction)
- Preliminary injunction replaced with settlement agreement (between NCWRC and Plaintiffs) that allows hunting of coyotes on private land with a permit and no hunting on public lands (with narrow exception)
- NCWRC issues resolution calling for the NC NEP to be terminated
- Evaluation of entire recovery program, facilitated by Group Solutions, Inc. Reintroductions of red wolf into the wild and AMP voluntarily temporarily suspended while additional science and research into the feasibility of species’ recovery is gathered
- Court injunction against take/removal of red wolves Service Recommendation Memo – new path to recovery; recovery of the red wolf is possible with significant changes
- Commitment from partners to expand captive facilities
A Species Status Assessment and 5-year review for the red wolf completed.
Red wolf approved as an AZA SAFE species (Saving Animals From Extinction)
Red Wolf Center in Columbia, NC reopens through a partnership with the North Carolina Wildlife Federation and the National Wildlife Refuge Association
Service proposes new 10(j) rule for NC NEP
Federal court ruling places permanent injunction against the taking of red wolves without demonstrating that the red wolf in question is a threat to human safety or the safety of livestock or pets.
Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute hosts Red Wolf Science Workshop
- National Academy of Sciences (NAS) confirms the red wolf is a distinct species
- NAS contracted by the Service to 1) assist in selecting proposals for a study to determine the taxonomy of unidentified wild canids in southern Louisiana, and 2) develop a research strategy to examine evolutionary relationships between ancient and contemporary red wolves
- $257,000 Recovery Challenge Grant awarded to Conservation Centers for Species Survival (C2S2) to build new enclosures (I.e., expand red wolf captive facilities)
- Reinitiated the Albemarle Peninsula Collaborative Canid Conservation team consisting of NCWRC and Service personnel
- Implementation of AMP resumes
- Quarterly Red Wolf Partnership Coordination Calls begin
- $257,000 Recovery Challenge Grant awarded to C2S2 to build new enclosures for red wolves
- Service begins process for updating the Red Wolf Recovery Plan
- Service sued by the Red Wolf Coalition, Defenders of Wildlife, the Animal Welfare Institute, and the Southern Environmental Law Center for violations of the Endangered Species Act.
- Court orders the Service to draft a plan to release captive red wolves into the NC NEP in consultation with scientists and experts in the field.
- Releases from captivity and pup fostering resumes.
- $257,000 Recovery Challenge Grant awarded to C2S2 to build new enclosures for red wolves
- Service submits a release plan to the court in March, followed by an amended plan in April.
- A new Red Wolf Recovery Team is assembled to update the current Red Wolf Recovery Plan
- Service withdraws 2018 proposed new 10(j) rule for NC NEP
Federal Register notices
Relevant documents, including 10(j) rules, recovery plan, 5-year review, and the SSA can be found on the https://ecos.fws.gov/ecp/species/37). You can also conduct your own search on the Federal Register website (https://www.federalregister.gov/documents/search).species profile page (