The Red Wolf once was once an Apex predator in the Southeastern United States. These unique canines are distinguished by their tall ears, broad muzzles, long, slender legs, and of course, their telltale reddish coat. The Red Wolf is the only species in North American history to re-establish a wild population after being declared fully extinct in the wild. Though their fight for survival is still an uphill battle, Red Wolves’ existence is a testament to the power of conservation, teamwork, and captive breed-to-release programs.
The Colonial War on Wolves
When European colonizers arrived in North America, they began to wage war not just on indigenous people, but also on the wildlife that held great cultural significance for them. Both bison and wolves were persecuted to the fullest extent. Wolf-killing competitions, community hunts, and bounties contributed to the eradication of Gray Wolves, Eastern wolves, and Red Wolves.
In the late 1700s, bounties were offered for the pelts of dead wolves in many states, including North Carolina, the heart of the Red Wolf’s wild population. It wasn’t until 1905 that Red Wolves were even recognized as a distinct species- colonial Americans painted all wolves with the same brush.
By the 1920s, deer herds reached a historic low point in the Southeastern United States. Driven out by logging, mining, and cattle grazing, the loss of deer populations meant that surviving Red Wolves now had to face a shortage of resources. The retreat of the Red Wolf caused coyotes, a more adaptable species, to move into the territories the wolves once occupied. This overlap of two species caused hybridization to occur, further reducing the amount of Red Wolf pups to be born in the wild.
United States government predator control programs, which eradicate wildlife posing issues to ranchers, continued pushing Red Wolves closer and closer to the brink of extinction.
It wasn’t until 1962 that conservationists began to realize Red Wolves were in danger of extinction, and a plan began to formulate to save them.
The Fight for Survival
The Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium in Washington state jumped into action immediately. This conservation-based zoo got to work on a plan to pioneer the first captive breeding facility for this species. By 1969, the program was ready; Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium received the first Red Wolf captured from the wild and taken into captivity.
In 1973, the Endangered Species Act was signed into law, granting species on the brink of extinction protection from humans. The law was difficult to enforce, especially in its early days; but it initiated a spark to protect animals from extinction.
In 1977, Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium saw the first litter of pups born into its program. Now, it was confirmed that Red Wolves could successfully breed in captivity. By 1980, as their numbers continued to decline, the remaining fourteen genetically pure Red Wolves were taken into captivity for breeding. They were officially declared extinct in the wild when the last wild Red Wolf was removed from its natural range.
By 1987, four Red Wolves were released into Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge (ARNWR) in North Carolina. As hoped, within the first year of reintroduction, the wolves successfully raised a litter of pups. Captive breeding programs continued to prove effective, and the first cross-fostering experiment in which a captive-raised pup was planted with nursing wild parents was victorious.
Red wolves continued to grow in population until a peak of roughly 120 animals were living in the wild in the late 1990s. The results were obvious. The passage of the Endangered Species Act, the Association of Zoos and Aquariums’ dedication to the Species Survival Plan, and the power of captive breeding programs resurrected this magnificent species.
A Setback, But Not the End
In 1995, North Carolina passed a law that made it legal for landowners to shoot Red Wolves on private property. Only a few years earlier, the American Sheep Industry Association had petitioned for the delisting of Red Wolves from the Endangered Species Act. Ranchers were concerned about the impact the wolves would have on their domestic animals. Anti-wolf sentiment was high, and tensions were beginning to build as these animals continued to fight tooth and nail to survive.
After North Carolina’s new law went into effect in 2006, an epidemic of Red Wolf killings took place. 2015 marked the beginning of a dark era for Red Wolves; after a great deal of controversy and a loss of support from landowners, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services halted all reintroduction efforts for the next five years. After decades of hard work, Red Wolf populations once again plummeted. Many wolves were targeted by poachers, hit by cars, and shot by hunters who claimed to have been mistaken.
By 2021, the wild population had decreased to less than ten individuals. Many believed this year to be the nail in the grave for Red Wolves. To make matters worse, a wild litter had not been born since 2018.
Conservationists and Red Wolf advocates held their breath- and prepared for a push that would determine the fate of these animals.
A Flicker of Hope
In 2022, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Services stepped back up to the plate. Ten captive-raised Red Wolves were released into the wild that year. The release of an endangered species is always a gamble. Every release is a loss of an animal who is safe in captivity and a risk that the animal could be killed. But calculated risks must be taken in order to save species from extinction.
On April 19, 2022, conservationists breathed a massive sigh of relief. For the first time since 2018, a wild litter of six pups was confirmed in Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge. Just one year later, five more wild pups were born in the wild to the same pair. In addition to the new pups—three females and two males—the Red Wolf Recovery Program added a male pup born at Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium to be cross-fostered in the same litter. The pup was accepted by his new pack.
This brought Red Wolf numbers back up to an estimated 34 individuals. With a commitment to their conservation looking strong, it is quite possible that Red Wolves could make a significant comeback. Captive breeding programs continue to run strong, with Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium currently managing twelve healthy, growing pups at their offsite facility.
t’s bittersweet to see wild Red Wolves starting back at such low numbers, but this is exactly why captive breeding programs exist. In days when wild populations dwindle, captive breeding facilities serve as a safety net to pull a species back from the brink.
Humans Can Coexist With Red Wolves
The field of wildlife conservation is fueled by a constant cycle of innovative minds realizing the mistakes of generations before them, and taking action to undo the harm done in the past.
Ranchers often kill wolves to protect sheep, goats, and calves. This strategy actually backfires. Wolves prefer to hunt native prey animals, like deer and elk. But when a pack member is killed, the pack is fragmented and weakened. When the pack loses strength, they resort to killing easier animals that require less social cooperation to take down, like lambs and calves.
There are countless resources for nonlethal methods of protecting domestic animals from wolves. Using birthing corrals for heavily pregnant animals can decrease the likelihood of predators finding a calf at their most vulnerable time. Livestock guardian dogs, like the Great Pyrenees, deter predators with their scent and strong, intimidating bark. Cleaning up animal carcasses rather than letting them rot decreases the odds of inviting a wolf onto the property. The options for coexistence with wolves are endless.
Every day people can promote wolf conservation by donating to conservation organizations, visiting reputable zoos that participate in captive breed-to-release programs, practicing “leave no trace” principles when visiting nature, and educating themselves on legislative issues that impact wildlife.
The Red Wolf has had many close calls as a species, but their story isn’t over yet.