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Central & North AmericaRed wolf Canis rufus

Red Wolf - © Art Beyer

Wolf Working Group - The Wolf working group (formally the Wolf specialist group) is an international organisation of experts on wolves. With wolf conservation matters of internal significance, cooperation across the key geographic areas is paramount.The working group plays a key role in this by allowing for the joint planning of conservation programs, exchange of experiences, research and publications and an assembly of knowledgeable personnel across the globe. Photo: Gray wolf

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English: Red Wolf

Critically Endangered

Red Wolves exist only in a reintroduced population in eastern North Carolina, USA. The species was Extinct in the Wild by 1980, but was reintroduced by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) in 1987 into eastern North Carolina. The total population within the reintroduction area is <150 (of which no more than 50 are mature individuals). Abundance outside the reintroduction area is unknown. Hybridization with Coyotes or Red Wolf x Coyote hybrids is the primary threat to the species' persistence in the wild.

Population trend:Increasing

(Red wolf range map)
(Click on map for more detail)

Habitat and Ecology:

Very little is known about Red Wolf habitat because the species' range was severely reduced by the time scientific investigations began. Given their wide historical distribution, Red Wolves probably utilized a large suite of habitat types at one time. The last naturally occurring population utilized the coastal prairie marshes of south-west Louisiana and south-east Texas (Carley 1975; Shaw 1975). However, many agree that this environment probably does not typify preferred Red Wolf habitat. There is evidence that the species was found in highest numbers in the once extensive bottomland river forests and swamps of the south-east (Paradiso and Nowak 1971, 1972; Riley and McBride 1972). Red Wolves reintroduced into north-eastern North Carolina and their descendants have made extensive use of habitat types ranging from agricultural lands to pocosins. Pocosins are forest/wetland mosaics characterized by an overstory of loblolly and pond pine (Pinus taeda and Pinus serotina, respectively) and an understory of evergreen shrubs (Christensen et al. 1981). This suggests that Red Wolves are habitat generalists and can thrive in most settings where prey populations are adequate and persecution by humans is slight. The findings of Hahn (2002) seem to support this generalization in that low human density, wetland soil type, and distance from roads were the most important predictor of potential wolf habitat in eastern North Carolina.


Major Threats:

Hybridization with Coyotes or Red Wolf x Coyote hybrids is the primary threat to the species' persistence in the wild (Kelly et al. 1999). While hybridization with Coyotes was a factor in the Red Wolf's initial demise in the wild, it was not detected as a problem in north-eastern North Carolina until approximately 1992 (Phillips et al. 1995). Indeed, northeastern North Carolina was determined to be ideal for Red Wolf reintroductions because of a purported absence of coyotes (Parker 1986). However, during the 1990s, the Coyote population apparently became well established in the area (P. Sumner pers. comm.; USFWS, unpubl.).

It has been estimated that the Red Wolf population in North Carolina can sustain only one hybrid litter out of every 59 litters (1.7%) to maintain 90% of its genetic diversity for the next 100 years (Kelly et al. 1999). However, prior to learning of this acceptable introgression rate, the introgression rate noted in the reintroduced population was minimally 15% (Kelly et al. 1999) or approximately 900% more than the population can sustain to maintain 90% of its genetic diversity for 100 years. If such levels of hybridization continued beyond 1999, non-hybridized Red Wolves could disappear within 12–24 years (3–6 generations). An adaptive management plan designed to test whether hybridization can be reduced to acceptable levels was initiated in 1999 (Kelly 2000). Initial results from this plan suggest that the intensive management specified in the plan may be effective in reducing introgression rates to acceptable levels (B. Fazio pers. comm.).

In the absence of hybridization, recovery of the Red Wolf and subsequent removal of the species from the U.S. Endangered Species List is deemed possible. It is noteworthy that similar hybridization has been observed in the population of suspected Red Wolf-type wolves in Algonquin Provincial Park, Ontario, Canada. If these wolves are ultimately shown to be Red Wolf-type wolves, this will enhance the conservation status of the species and nearly triple the known number of Red Wolf-type wolves surviving in the wild.

Human induced mortality (vehicles and gunshot) can be significant. However, the threat this mortality represents to the population is unclear. Most vehicle deaths occurred early in the reintroduction and were likely due to naive animals. Nonetheless, the overall impact of these mortality factors will depend on the proportion of the losses attributable to the breeding segment of the population (effective population (Ne) and what proportion of the overall population is lost due to these human factors (both N and Ne).


Conservation Actions:

The species is not included on the CITES Appendices. The Red Wolf is listed as endangered under the U.S. Endangered Species Act (ESA) (United States Public Law No. 93-205; United States Code Title 16 Section 1531 et seq.). The reintroduced animals and their progeny in north-eastern North Carolina are considered members of an experimental non-essential population. This designation was promulgated under Section 10(j) of the ESA and permits the USFWS to manage the population and promote recovery in a manner that is respectful of the needs and concerns of local citizens (Parker and Phillips 1991). Hunting of Red Wolves is prohibited by the ESA. To date, federal protection of the Red Wolf has been adequate to successfully reintroduce and promote recovery of the species in North Carolina.

The only free-ranging population of Red Wolves exists in north-eastern North Carolina in an area comprised of 60% private land and 40% public land. This area contains three national wildlife refuges (Alligator River NWR, Pocosin Lakes NWR, and Mattamuskeet NWR) which provide important protection to the wolves. Red Wolves or a very closely related taxon may also occupy Algonquin Provincial Park, Ontario, Canada.

A very active recovery programme for the Red Wolf has been in existence since the mid-1970s (USFWS 1990; Phillips et al. 2003), with some measures from as early as the mid-1960s (USFWS, unpubl.). By 1976, a captive breeding programme was established using 17 animals captured in Texas and Louisiana (Carley 1975; USFWS 1990). Of these, 14 became the founders of the current captive breeding programme. In 1977, the first pups were born in the captive programme, and by 1985, the captive population had grown to 65 individuals in six zoological facilities (Parker 1986).

With the species reasonably secure in captivity, the USFWS began reintroducing Red Wolves at the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge in north-eastern North Carolina in 1987. As of September 2002, 102 animals have been released with a minimum of 281 descendants produced in the wild since 1987. As of September 2002, there is a minimum population of 66 wild Red Wolves in north-eastern North Carolina, with a total wild population believed to be at least 100 individuals. Likewise, at this same time, there is a minimum population of 17 hybrid canids present in north-eastern North Carolina. The 17 known hybrids are sterilized and radio-collared (USFWS, unpubl.).

During 1991 a second reintroduction project was initiated at the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee (Lucash et al. 1999). Thirty-seven Red Wolves were released from 1992 to 1998. Of these, 26 either died or were recaptured after straying onto private lands outside the Park (Henry 1998). Moreover, only five of the 32 pups known to have been born in the wild survived but were removed from the wild during their first year (USFWS, unpubl.). Biologists suspect that disease, predation, malnutrition, and parasites contributed to the high rate of pup mortality (USFWS, unpubl.). Primarily because of the poor survival of wild-born offspring, the USFWS terminated the Tennessee restoration effort in 1998 (Henry 1998).

Occurrence in captivity: As of September 2002, there are approximately 175 Red Wolves in captivity at 33 facilities throughout the United States and Canada (USFWS, unpubl.). The purpose of the captive population is to safeguard the genetic integrity of the species and to provide animals for reintroduction. In addition, there are propagation projects on two small islands off the South Atlantic and Gulf Coasts of the U.S. which, through reintroduction of known breeding individuals and capture of their offspring, provide wild-born pups for release into mainland reintroduction projects (USFWS 1990).