- Taxon: Mammal
- Range: Eastern North Carolina
- Status: Designated an endangered species in 1967
The red wolf is one of the world’s most endangered wolves. Once common throughout the Eastern and South Central United States, red wolf populations were decimated by the early 20th century as a result of intensive predator control programs and the degradation and alteration of the species’ habitat. When the red wolf was designated endangered in 1967, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service initiated efforts to conserve and recover the species. Today, about 40 red wolves roam their native habitats in eastern North Carolina as a non-essential, experimental population (NEP), and more than 200 red wolves are maintained in captive breeding facilities throughout the United States.
The red wolf (Canis rufus) is a native North American canid intermediate in size between the coyote (Canis latrans) and gray wolf (Canis lupus). 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. Adult red wolves range in weight from about 45 to 80 pounds. Red wolves have wide heads with broad muzzles, 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.
The last red wolves were found in coastal prairie and marsh habitat because this was the last area in which the animals were allowed to remain. Any habitat area in the Southeastern United States of sufficient size, which provides adequate food, water, and cover, should be suitable habitat for the red wolf. Telemetry studies indicate that red wolf home range requirements vary from about 25 to 50 square miles.
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.
Red wolves are social animals that live in close-knit packs. Typical packs consist of five to eight animals, including a breeding adult pair and their offspring of different years. Older offspring will often assist the breeding pair in pup rearing. Almost all offspring between one and two years of age will leave the pack or “disperse” to form their own pack.
Red wolves tend to form pair-bonds for life and mate once a year in February. Pups are typically born in April or May in well-hidden dens that may 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. Fewer than half of wolf pups born in the wild survive to adulthood. Survival rates are affected by disease, malnutrition and predation.
Wolf packs have specific territories that they actively defend against other canids, including other wolves. Most active at dusk and dawn, red wolves are elusive and generally avoid humans and human activity.
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 NEP area. Coyotes may directly compete with wolves for resources, as well as introduce diseases, and dilute wolf genetic lines through hybridization. This is particularly true when a pack has lost one of the adults from the breeding pair close to mating season.
Red wolf recovery program review
In 2013, the Service and North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission (NCWRC) entered into broad agreement acknowledging growing concerns from private landowners regarding management of the NEP population in the North Carolina Albemarle Peninsula. Both agencies recognized steps were needed to improve management of the NEP, which included the need to conduct an evaluation of the Red Wolf Recovery Program and the implementation of recovery actions in the NEP’s five counties in northeastern North Carolina.
To that end, in 2014 the Service contracted with the Wildlife Management Institute (WMI) to conduct an independent evaluation focused on three primary elements: supporting science, program management, and human dimensions. WMI reviewed more than 200 documents, interviewed Service and NCWRC staff at various management levels, commissioned literature reviews of red wolf genetics and ecology, held two public meetings in the red wolf restoration area, and conducted public opinion surveys.
In light of the findings from the WMI evaluation, the Service expanded the review in June 2015 to include the recovery efforts beyond the program’s non-essential, experimental population in North Carolina. The objective of expanding the scope was to identify actions necessary to guide red wolf recovery on the landscape. The review was part of the Service’s continuing commitment to ensure the science is right and foster trust with stakeholders as issues regarding the recovery of the red wolf were addressed and implemented.
The Service took steps to involve state partners and key stakeholders in the ongoing review. A multi-faceted recovery team was reconvened in October 2015 to address current and future needs to restore red wolves in the wild. The team — comprised of representatives from federal and state agencies, university scientists, species experts, representatives from non-governmental organizations, county officials, and private landowners — reviewed the implementation of recovery actions and the science of red wolf conservation related to species taxonomy and historical range, population viability, and human dimensions.
On Sept. 12, 2016, the Service announced significant changes for red wolf recovery after completing the two year, two-step review. The Service is committed to recovering the species.
One of the most surprising findings of the Service’s review was that genetic diversity of the captive population will decline. Higher success in maintaining genetic diversity is needed to ensure a secure captive population and persistence of the red wolf species. Additionally, more animals are needed in captivity to secure the species’ survival and to support any wild population, including the current NEPin North Carolina.
In the five-year review, the Service recommended no change in the endangered status of the red wolf under the Endangered Species Act, a status that has been in place since 1967.
Also in April, the Service said it is moving to begin work with an independent organization as directed by Congress to determine within one year whether the red wolf represents a taxonomically valid species designation.
- Red wolf listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Preservation Act
- Red wolf captive breeding initiated at Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium in Tacoma, Washington
- Endangered Species Act becomes federal law
- 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
- Last red wolves removed from the wild; declared biologically extinct in the wild
- Publication of a final rule in the Federal Register to introduce mated pairs of red wolves into the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge in eastern North Carolina;
- establishment of nonessential experimental population (NEP)
- Restoration effort begins with the experimental release of red wolves at Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge
- First litter of red wolf pups born in the wild at Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge
- Publication of a final rule in the Federal Register to introduce mated pairs of red wolves into the Great Smoky Mountains National Park
- Experimental release begins at Great Smoky Mountains National Park
- First red wolves born in the wild at Great Smoky Mountains National Park
- Publication of an amendment to the special rule in the Federal Register addressing private landowner concerns about reintroduced red wolves
- Red wolf project ended at Great Smoky Mountains National Park due to lack of adequate food sources
- Adaptive management plan implemented to address red wolf/coyote hybridization within the NEP area
- The size of the wild population in North Carolina peaked at an estimated 120-130 wolves
- The Service recognized steps were needed to improve management of the NEP, which included the need to conduct an evaluation of the Red Wolf Recovery Program
- Memorandum of Understanding on collaborative conservation of red wolves and other canids, including coyotes, on the North Carolina Albemarle Peninsula signed by the Service and the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission (NCWRC)
- Independent evaluation of the NEP by the Wildlife Management Institute initiated; findings of the peer-reviewed evaluation released
- NCWRC established rules to ban nighttime hunting and require permits for daytime hunting of coyotes in the five-county red wolf recovery area in eastern North Carolina
- Service expanded the evaluation to include recovery efforts beyond the Program’s NEP to identify actions necessary to guide red wolf recovery on the landscape;
- Reintroductions of red wolf into the wild suspended while additional science and research into the feasibility of species’ recovery is gathered;
- existing red wolves located in North Carolina are managed in accordance with the 1995 rule;
- Recovery team reconvened to address current and future needs to restore red wolves in the wild
- The recovery team continued to meet with the intent to produce a set of recommendations for consideration by the Service
- The Service announced recovery of the red wolf in the wild is possible with significant changes that must be implemented to secure the captive and wild populations.
Subject matter experts
- Emily Weller, Red Wolf Regional Recovery Lead, firstname.lastname@example.org, (337) 291-3090
Federal Register notices
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