Photo: Kim Wheeler.
To protect the red wolf from extinction, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service removed the remaining red wolves from the wild in 1980 and used them to establish a breeding program with the objective of restoring the species to a portion of its former range. Only 14 individuals would reproduce to become the founding ancestors of all red wolves existing today. With very small populations, survival can be affected by genetic drift (random loss of allele frequency) and inbreeding depression. Currently, gene diversity in the captive red wolf population is approximately 89.65% of the founder population (N = 14), and there is little evidence of inbreeding depression.
The successful captive red wolf breeding program is a result of the cooperation of Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium, the development of an American Association of Zoos and Aquariums SSP program, and the participation of numerous SSP-affiliated zoos and nature centers. Consequently, captive breeding has become a foundation of the success of the red wolf recovery program. Researchers and other science-based partners have provided data and information necessary to make management decisions that support restoration actions to ensure sound conservation approaches to recovering the red wolf.
Red Wolf Species Survival Plan
The American Species Survival Plan (SSP) program was developed in 1981 by the American Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA). The mission of an AZA SSP Program is to cooperatively manage specific, and typically threatened or endangered, species population within AZA-accredited Zoos and Aquariums, and other AZA conservation partners including Certified Related Facilities, and Approved Non-Member Participants.
SSP programs focus on animals that are in danger of extinction in the wild, these captive breeding programs may be their only chance to survive; these programs also help maintain healthy and genetically diverse animal populations within the zoo community. SSP programs significantly contribute to field conservation efforts, species recovery, veterinary care for wildlife disease issues, and establishment of assurance populations. There are currently more than 300 SSP Programs, each managed by their corresponding Taxon Advisory Groups, within AZA. For each species, a comprehensive population Studbook and a Breeding and Transfer Plan are developed which identifies population management goals and recommendations to ensure the sustainability of a healthy, genetically diverse, and demographically varied AZA population.
Red Wolves were nearing extinction in the wild when the Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium in Tacoma, Washington established a captive-breeding program in association with the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS). The Point Defiance Zoo developed husbandry techniques, recruited four additional cooperating institutions to house wolves in the captive program and received AZA approval for a Red Wolf SSP program in 1984. By 1984, the captive population numbered 63 individuals and was growing, largely through the coordinated efforts of the Point Defiance Zoo and Red Wolf SSP cooperators. These efforts made the release of red wolves into the first reintroduction site at Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge in 1987 possible. Today, there are 43 SSP facilities participating in the Red Wolf SSP program (use this link for map and websites of all SSP cooperators), with ~190 red wolves. The Red Wolf SSP is the foundation of the recovery program. Without its collective expertise and resources, the future of the red wolf would be uncertain. The contributions of the RWSSP include: (1) managing populations, (2) training field personnel on techniques for proper capture and restraint, (3) applying captive research to the field and (4) reintroducing captive born red wolves.
Successful conservation programs are often developed through partnerships. The Red Wolf Recovery Program is a great example of organizations working together to benefit a species. Zoos can play a significant role in red wolf recovery by informing visitors about the value of wolves in ecosystems and inspiring the public to support the wolf's reestablishment in the wild. We encourage you to check out the websites of the Red Wolf SSP program participants. There are a lot of photos, videos, and educational resources available on red wolves! Most of them also have Facebook pages, blogs, Twitter, and You Tube accounts as well.
Additional Partner Sites with Red Wolf Information:
- Chattanooga Nature Center (Chattanooga, TN)
- Endangered Wolf Center (Eureka, MO)
- Fort Worth Zoological Park (Fort Worth, TX)
- Lincoln Park Zoological Gardens (Chicago, IL)
- North Carolina Museum of Life & Science (Durham, NC)
- Wildlife Science Center (Forest Lake, MN)
- Wolf Conservation Center of New York (South Salem, NY)