Only 8 Red Wolves Remain in the American Wild

A version of this article first appeared in Santa Barbara’s Noozhawk.

Listed as an endangered species in 1967, the red wolf (Canis rufus) was declared extinct in the wild in 1980. A native of the Southeastern U.S. for 10,000 years, the species has continued, albeit in low numbers, only because a small population of red wolves raised in captivity was reintroduced into a 1.7 million acre recovery area in northeastern North Carolina.

Between 2002 and 2014, according to the Animal Welfare Institute (AWI), “the wild red wolf population consistently numbered over 100 animals.” But from there, the story headed south. AWI writes that by 2015, the red wolf population had dropped to an estimated 50 to 75 animals. The next year showed more loss, with an estimated 25 to 48 red wolves remaining. As of October 2021, only eight red wolves were known to be in the wild. Soon to join them, per a recent U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announcement, will be nine captive wolves that will be released into the North Carolina wild.

AWI says mismanagement by the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is responsible for the low numbers. Program management moved from red wolf biologists to bureaucrats in Atlanta, far removed from on-the-ground work. And landowners who didn’t like the recovery program continued to kill wolves, claiming innocence — “we thought it was a coyote.” As well, the USFWS actually issued permits to kill red wolves on private land, even in the face of so few numbers. Writes AWI, “Given the small and declining number of red wolves, losing even one wolf has huge repercussions for the species.”

“The impacts are particularly dire when a mother wolf is lost, because it not only orphans her pups and likely leads to their deaths, but also eliminates the possibility for that particular wolf to contribute more litters to the population. Furthermore, it disrupts the entire pack’s dynamics, increasing the likelihood of other red wolves hybridizing with coyotes: Although red wolves tend to form pair-bonds for life, red wolves may interbreed or hybridize with coyotes,” per AWI.

As an outsider looking in, the obvious solution would seem to be greater protections for wildlife in North Carolina, including no more killing of coyotes and wolves. The level of frustration with those who care about these animals and work most closely with them to save them must be off the charts — only eight in the wild and only in one state! As I continue my self-education on the state of wildlife in the United States, a picture even more troubling than I had imagined emerges from the reading and research. The red wolf story is truly shocking.

As an apex predator important to overall biodiversity, this species needs much more attention it would appear. A higher level of commitment to supporting a sustainable population in North Carolina is needed, more space and attention to captive breeding and more support for reintroduction of red wolves to other suitable areas where they could thrive. Equally important is more public education that includes ways to encourage tolerance of wolves in the world and that reinforces nonlethal approaches where there’s predator-livestock/human overlap. The maltreatment of the gray wolf, the larger cousin of the red wolf, shows how essential education is. Also taken to the brink of extinction in America, the gray wolf has been reintroduced to some areas and found footing in a few parts of the U.S. — and seemingly as soon as there’s a bit of a foothold, there are those among us all too anxious to kill the animals.

That essential education suggested should include the history of how it’s come to be that there are only eight red wolves remaining in the wild of the United States, whose 48 contiguous states have more than 3 million square miles. Like with the mountain lion, bison and other species, wolves have not escaped Man’s rapacity in eliminating nonhuman life. Wildlife advocate and author Rick Lamplugh writes that by 1970, only about 700 wolves remained in the lower 48 states, down from an estimated 2 million prior to the arrival of colonists, who quickly eradicated wolves east of the Mississippi.

Multiple organizations are working on issues related to the survival of red wolves, with several zoos and nature centers housing captive animals totaling more than 200. Kudos to them. Among them are breeding programs managed by the Wolf Conservation Center at their Endangered Species Facility. It’s great there are committed organizations, but it seems — again from the view of an outsider peeking in — that we should be much farther along in higher numbers of animals and with more animals reintroduced into the wild. Even factoring in that science may move slowly, we are talking about decades since the few remaining red wolves were removed from the wild and placed into captive programs.

A program that hopefully will prove helpful in identifying appropriate areas for red wolf reintroduction is the Gulf Coast Canine Project. Breeding occurred among coyotes, gray wolves and eastern wolves, resulting in red wolf genetics in coyotes in southwest coastal Louisiana and the Gulf Coast of Texas — the coyotes have become reservoirs of genetic information for red wolves. By tracking these coyotes with red wolf genes, researchers are assessing the genetic history to see what remains of the red wolf, looking to understand behavior and hoping to ultimately inform conservation and management of both red wolves and coyotes.

For more information and ways to help the red wolf, visit the North Carolina Wildlife Federation, Endangered Wolf Center, Wolf Conservation Center and Gulf Coast Canine Project, and read Rick Lamplugh.

Maria Fotopoulos writes about the connection between overpopulation and biodiversity loss, and from time to time other topics that confound her. Contact her via FB @BetheChangeforAnimals and Muck Rack.

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Maria K. Fotopoulos

Maria K. Fotopoulos

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Maria writes about the link between biodiversity loss & human overpopulation, and from time to time other topics that confound her. FB BetheChangeforAnimals