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Alligator River NWR

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Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge
Red Wolf Re-establishment Program


The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is reintroducing red wolves (Canis rufus) to prevent extinction of the species and to restore the ecosystems in which red wolves once occurred, as mandated by the Endangered Species Act of 1973 (Act). According to the Act, endangered and threatened species are of esthetic, ecological, educational, historical, recreational, and scientific value to the Nation and its people.

On the Edge of Extinction

The red wolf is one of the most endangered animals in the world. It is a shy species that once roamed throughout the Southeast as a top predator. Aggressive predator control programs and clearing of forested habitat combined to cause impacts that brought the red wolf to the brink of extinction. By 1970, the entire population of red wolves was believed to be less than 100 animals confined to a small area of coastal Texas and Louisiana.

To save the species from extinction, the Service captured as many as possible of the few remaining animals from 1974 through 1980. Only 17 captured animals met the criteria established to define the species and stood between its existence and extinction. Out of the 17 captured wolves, 14 were able to successfully reproduce. These animals formed the nucleus of a captive-breeding program established at the Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium in Tacoma, Washington, with the final goal of reestablishing the species in portions of its original southeastern range. Thirty-eight zoos and nature centers in 23 states now cooperate in a national breeding program and are valuable partners in efforts to restore red wolves.

Red Wolf Returned to the Wild
© Photo courtesy U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service
Back in the Wild

The red wolf is now back in the wild, hunting, rearing young, and communicating by its characteristic howl, in a portion of in its original southeastern habitat. Since 1987, red wolves have been released into northeastern North Carolina and now roam over more than 1.5 million acres that includes three national wildlife refuges, a U.S. Air Force bombing range, and several hundred thousand acres of private land.

Other red wolves have been released on coastal islands in Florida and South Carolina as a steppingstone between captivity and the wild. Although these islands are not large enough to provide for the needs of more than a few red wolves at a time, they provide the opportunity for them to breed and exist in the wild in order to produce animals for future mainland reintroductions.

Top Ten Frequently Asked Questions about Red Wolves

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 preserve 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.

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. The average adult female red wolf weighs 52 pounds (24 kg), and the average adult male weighs 61 pounds (26 kg). Red wolves have tall pointed ears and long legs with large feet. Red wolves stand about 26 inches (67 cm) at their shoulder and are about 4 ½ feet (145 cm) long from the tip of the nose to the tip of the tail.

Wolf Range 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.

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.

How many red wolves currently exist?

Red wolf numbers continue to fluctuate with annual birth and death rates. Approximately 157 captive red wolves reside at 38 captive breeding facilities across the US, including two island propagation programs. The wild red wolf population in eastern North Carolina is estimated at nearly 100 animals. Over 70 of these animals are outfitted with radio collars.

Red Wolves returned to the Wild
© Photo courtesy U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service
How does the Service keep track of the wolves?

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. These signals enable the biologists to locate the wolves. Monitoring of these signals can vary from twice daily to once a week, depending on specific circumstances.

Are red wolves a threat to humans?

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.

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 can consume two to five pounds of food per day.

Red Wolve Pup
© Photo courtesy
U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service
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”. A typical pack consists of five to eight members, which includes an “alpha” or breeding adult pair and offspring of different years. The alpha wolves are typically the only breeders in the pack, breeding once a year. 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.

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. Cooperating with private landowners is an integral component of the Red Wolf Recovery Program.

Historic Time Line for the Endangered Red Wolf

1967 Red wolf listed as an endangered species under provisions of the Endangered Species Preservation Act of 1966.
1968 Red wolves are interbreeding with coyotes, capture of wild population begins.
1969 First red wolf placed into captivity at Point Defiance Zoo in Tacoma, WA.
1973 Endangered Species Act becomes Federal law. Race against extinction begins. Collection of all the remaining wild red wolves. 14 animals become the foundation for a captive breeding program.
1977 First litter of red wolf pups born in captivity at Point Defiance Zoo.
1978 First successful release, tracking, and recapturing of red wolves on Bulls Island off the coast of South Carolina.
1980 Last of the wild red wolves are brought into captivity. Red wolves are extinct in the wild.
1984Red wolf recovery plan revised and updated. The possibility of red wolf reintroduction to the Land Between the Lakes area of Tennessee is abandoned as a potiential release site due to lack of public support.
1987 After extensive public outreach, the first reintroduction begins with the release of four pairs of red wolves into Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge.
1988 First litter of red wolf pups born in the wild at Allogator River National Wildlife Refuge.
1989 Second island propagation project site is begun on Horn Island off the coast of Mississippi.
1990 Third island project begins on St. Vincent Island on the Gulf Coast of Florida.
1991 A second reintroduction project begins with the release of red wolves into the Great Smoky Mountain National Park.
1993 Red wolves are released into Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge in northeastern North Carolina. The first litter of pups are born in Great Smoky Mountain National Park.
1995 Relaxed laws go into affect, allowing landowners to take (kill) a red wolf if it is attacking livestock or pets.
1996 Several wolf / coyote hybrid litters are confirmed in the wild.
1998 Great Smoky Mountain project is cancelled due to low pup survival and the inability of wolves to establish home ranges within the park. Horn Island project is cancelled due to the increasing likelihood of wolf and visitor interactions.
1999 USFWS partners with a variety of scientific experts and organizations to develop red wolf territories that are free of coyotes.
2000 Adaptive Management Plan appears to be working, but the chance for interbreeding is still a threat.
2002 In winter 2002, the entire red wolf population of northeastern North Carolina is wild-born. In spring, two captive born pups are inserted into a wild red wolf den. The fostered pups are successfully accepted into the litter.
2003 Current population of wild red wolves is approximately 100 animals, spanning 1.5 million acres. The captive population numbers 157 animals in 38 captive breeding facilities across the U.S.

Key to Acronyms

    ARNWR Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge, North Carolina
    AZA American Zoo and Aquarium Association
    GSMNP Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee
    mtDNA Mitochondrial DNA
    PDZA Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium, Tacoma, Washington
    PLNWR Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge, North Carolina
    SSP Species Survival Plan

Content provided by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, February 2004.

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