Will Red Wolves — Once Declared Extinct — Make a Comeback?

red wolf endangered species

Story at-a-glance -

  • Red wolves once thrived in Florida, Pennsylvania and Central Texas, traveling widely and thriving in areas as diverse as forests, mountains, deserts and swamps, but they were declared extinct in the wild in 1973
  • Conservationists working through the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service were able to capture red wolves in the wild and place them in a restoration program in North Carolina’s Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge
  • For several years, it looked as if the wildlife refuge might be offsetting the threat of coyote encroachment (and interbreeding), as it focused on rebuilding the wild red wolf population over five counties
  • Territorial disputes among wolves themselves and a lack of prey are factors in the red wolves’ survival, but human-related factors (e.g., control efforts, death by vehicles and illegal killings) eclipse all the others
  • Reintroduced in a wildlife refuge 30 years ago as an “experimental” population, how red wolves survive and why they don’t is a testament to the perfect storm between nature, modern life, conservation efforts and politics

By Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

Wolves are fascinating creatures. Known for their eerie-sounding howls, superb hunting skills and ability to thrive in a wide variety of habitats, wolves have nevertheless become remarkably scarce, and one variety's apparent inability to thrive in the wild is particularly disheartening. The red wolf, described as a smaller, thinner version of the gray wolf only with a reddish cast to their coats, is the only species indigenous to the U.S.

Red wolves (Canis rufus) once thrived as far south as Florida, as far north as Pennsylvania and as far west as Central Texas, traveling widely in areas as diverse as forests, mountains, deserts and swamps. Defenders of Wildlife maintains that they've lost more of their historical territory — 99.7 percent — than any other large carnivore in the world.1

After nearly a century of being shot by order of state predator control programs, and dispersed as humans became the interlopers, red wolves were declared an endangered species in 1973. Biologists concerned about the animals' waning populations set about capturing the remaining red wolves near the Texas and Louisiana coasts.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS)2 explains that of the 17 red wolves they found, 14 were the "founders" of a successful breeding program. However, they had to be a purebred species, not, as some had been discovered, a mix of wolf and coyote. For this reason, in 1980, FWS declared red wolves extinct in the wild. As the bureau noted in 2014:

"By 1987, enough red wolves were bred in captivity to begin a restoration program on Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge. Since then, the experimental population area has expanded to include three national wildlife refuges, a Department of Defense bombing range, state-owned lands and private property, spanning a total of 1.7 million acres ...

Approximately 100 red wolves roam their native habitats in five northeastern North Carolina counties. Interbreeding with the coyote (an exotic species not native to North Carolina) has been recognized as the most significant and detrimental threat affecting restoration of red wolves in this section of their historical home range."3

Conservation Efforts Can Protect Wildlife, but Government Reach Is Limited

The FWS' "adaptive management efforts" looked for several years as if they might be successfully offsetting the threat of coyote encroachment even as they focused on building the wild red wolf population in northeastern North Carolina.

Although the FWS introduced more than 100 captive-bred red wolves into the wild and watched in approval as their numbers grew to 225, in early 2018, the Washington Post reported that the current number of red wolves in the sanctuary may be around 45. In fact, experts began wondering if red wolves are able to survive outside of zoos. The Washington Post notes:

"The red wolf, which went extinct in the wild before the federal government managed to revive the species, is disappearing again, maybe forever … If wild red wolves are lost, it would mark one of the biggest and most dramatic failures for a federal endangered species recovery plan."4

Wolves of any variety aren't terribly long-lived anyway. According to Western Wildlife Outreach,5 few live more than five years in the wild, although if conditions are ideal they can live up to 15 years.

While prey density and territorial disputes among the wolves themselves are a factor in their survival, human-related factors (such as control efforts to address livestock decreases, death by vehicles and illegal killings) eclipse all the others. Wolves have been shot by both hunters and landowners and accidentally trapped, mostly as they do what wolves do, which is to roam.

"Missteps" by the FWS in the Atlanta area where the restoration program is overseen, (around nine hours away from the refuge) are said to include poor communication between state officials regarding how many wolves were released back in the late 1980s, and a recent decision proposed by the FWS to allow landowners to decrease protections,6 which has been sharply criticized and angering to all sides:

"The project is mired in politics, distrust, open bickering, scientific disputes and a legal challenge. It reflects the discord on Capitol Hill as lawmakers debate Endangered Species Act revisions that could dramatically weaken one of the most powerful environmental laws in the world."7

Is It a Coyote, a Red Wolf or a Hybrid?

As noted earlier, there's been much debate among scientists regarding whether the red wolf is a distinct species or simply a hybrid between the grey wolf and the coyote. A blog called Texas Cryptid Hunter noted that seven red wolves were verified and taken from the lower tip of Texas in 1963 and '64, and another near Houston in 1961, and all were full-blooded red wolves.

In 2014, however, the blog noted that "[s]ubsequent specimens taken from the eastern portion of the Lone Star State have all been found to be large coyotes." In addition:

"Debate has raged among biologists as to whether the red wolf went extinct in the traditional sense. What I mean by that is that many believe, as their numbers dwindled, red wolves interbred with coyotes (Canis latrans).

This continued long enough that full-blooded wolves disappeared, leaving only a sort of coyote/wolf mutt here in Texas. It has been documented that many, if not most, coyotes in Texas carry at least some red wolf genetics. This confirms that this interbreeding took place and took place often."8

However, reports of red wolf sightings kept filtering in from experienced rangers, hunters and/or conservationists who claimed to be very aware of the differences between red wolves and coyote, and that they can still be found, albeit rarely. But wildlife biologists disagree.

The growing question now is whether the red wolves now roaming North Carolina are really full-bred wolves, or so interbred with coyotes that it's become a moot point if they no longer qualify for federal protection. In mid-2016, the FWS decided to extract red wolves from the refuge and place them back in zoos, due in part to this very question. The animals' genetic purity was at risk. The bureau called on the expert opinion of four scientists and their independent analysis.

But then the scientists claimed the FWS version of their analysis was "full of alarming misinterpretations." They described the bureau's recommendation to remove the red wolves as "backward" and deemed the animal's genetic purity wasn't at risk at all, the Post quotes.

But Ron Sutherland, a scientist for the Wildlands Network in Durham, said Fish and Wildlife essentially gave up on red wolves two years ago, and that a wild red wolf sighting is now one of the rarest sights in nature. When the 150,000-acre Alligator River refuge was established as a suitable habitat for red wolves, he says, they thought there were no coyotes there, and that any trying to get in would be thwarted.

When Individuals, Conservationists, State Entities and Governments Collide

It's not hard to imagine how uncomfortable private land owners, farmers and state wildlife officials were when red wolves began being introduced, even though it's a very large area covering five counties. Naturally, hunters fretted about wolves possibly eating up the very animals they enjoyed targeting.

One of the "missteps" the FWS made, according to Regina Mossotti, director of animal care and conservation at the Endangered Wolf Center in St. Louis (which helps manage the captive red wolf population), was that experts forgot to communicate what exactly they were releasing, their plight and their reclusive nature. The "big bad wolf" narrative was almost a by-word. Mossotti quips:

"They were so focused on the science and putting paws on the ground that they forgot the communications aspect … (Eventually) the people against the red wolves were able to go door to door and say the red wolf was going to eat your grandma."9

Federal workers were said to make even worse blunders in the inception stage of the project. In some cases, deals were made allowing more than the allotted number to be released, and some private landowners were able to get red wolves released outside of the refuge property.

Some area landowners are at opposite poles in their support; some are in awe of measures that might help restore native "wildness," but hunters and others adamantly resist.

The state wildlife commission made a call based on landowner complaints to "terminate the experiment," effectively shutting down the recovery program. Proponents and conservationists are reportedly seeking alternative red wolf habitats in the southeast should they be forced to leave North Carolina. Mike Bryant, who once managed the wildlife refuge, says the upshot is that for a sustainable, wild red wolf population to remain, the prognosis is poor.

Bryant, who resigned from running the refuge program in 2012, and retired as refuge director four years later, says he struggled for years with tug-of-wars between entities with control over the program — biologists or managers — and policy decisions that cut back on the number of red wolves.

In 2015, opponents of the program went to the Department of Interior (which oversees the FWS) asking for a thorough review. One of the program's coordinators admitted confusion over whether the term "release" meant catching a wolf in the wild and releasing it again, or releasing the wolf from captivity into the wild. According to the report:

"There was some merit to the claim that Fish and Wildlife broke some rules. The agency was authorized to release three pairs of wolves in 1987 and two more pairs the next year. But by 2014, the program had released more than 130 wolves, often without the state's knowledge."10

The Future and Fate of the Red Wolf

In 2016, a study emerged that quantified DNA analysis claiming captive red wolves are not distinct, but actually 25 percent wolf and 75 percent coyote. In the furor of the study's techniques being criticized, the agency made what was considered by some to be a surprising decision: that wild red wolves should be captured and placed in zoos to augment the existing captive red wolves and preserve their genetic purity. That's the decision the four scientists labeled "backward."

Then something happened that caused both heartbreak and rage among conservationists. Very soon afterward, they learned the agency had granted a private landowner in North Carolina the permit needed to shoot a "nuisance" wolf, but it turned out to be a nursing female. In essence, it was also a death sentence for her pups.

Three conservation groups — the Red Wolf Coalition, Defenders of Wildlife and the Animal Welfare Institute — joined forces to file suit for violation of the Endangered Species Act,11 which resulted in injunctions against removing red wolves from the refuge and issuing shooting permits. Another barring was against the allowance of night hunts, because coyote and red wolves would be practically indiscernible.

But in late 2017, conservationists who combed the wildlife refuge area in search of red wolves returned with nothing to show for their efforts. In the end, there is an encouraging word, however dire it looks for red wolves: Wolves are good at hiding, and they have excellent survival skills that may be keener now than ever before.

Here's an interesting tidbit: Scientists found that after wolf pups are born, they stay in the den to nurse on their mother's milk for eight to 10 weeks, after which the babies begin to eat meat with the rest of the pack. What makes it interesting is that red wolves have a far greater ability to survive heartworm in comparison with domestic dogs.12

Note: On August 10, 2018, the FWS reopened a comment period (that closed on August 28) on a proposed replacement of the existing regulations set forth regarding the experimental red wolf population under the Endangered Species Act. The proposed ruling can be seen via FWS.gov.13