June 6, 2017
Christian Hunt

Red wolves are once again facing extinction in the wild and they need your support to ensure their future.  

Red wolves once called the entire Southeast home. Roaming from the Texan plains, down into the swamps of Florida and up into the Midwest, the red wolf’s entire historical range fell within the boundaries of the United States. Truly the “All-American wolf,” Canis rufus can now only be found in one small area of North Carolina where it was reintroduced by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 1987 after being officially declared extinct in the wild in 1980. Despite these efforts to regain a foothold for the species in the wild, recent politically-fueled attacks and popular misconceptions have largely undone recovery efforts. Now fewer than 45 red wolves remain in North Carolina, and they are once again facing extinction in the wild.

The Mystery of the Red Wolf

What exactly is a red wolf, genetically speaking? There are two popular theories (among others). The first, and more widely held theory, argues that the red wolf evolved from an ancient wolf, which branched off into three distinct species—coyotes, eastern wolves, and red wolves—thousands of years ago. The alternative theory, the hybrid argument, contends that the red wolf is 75 percent gray wolf and 25 percent coyote. Under this theory, it is held that, as settlers killed off Southeastern gray wolves, the remaining populations bred with coyotes, producing today’s red wolf. The debate about the red wolf’s origin is ongoing and is unlikely to be resolved anytime soon (several scientists are preparing to publish a paper rebutting a recent hybrid study). At this point, what we know for certain is that the red wolf is the best example we have of a large Southeastern wolf; it plays a hugely important role in the ecosystem; and, under both theories, it is protected under the Endangered Species Act.

Restoring Balance in the Southeast

Just as the wolves of Yellowstone are shown to balance the ecosystems of the West, red wolves have similar positive impacts on the landscape of the Southeast. Anecdotal evidence suggests that because red wolves prey on the weak and sick, the surviving deer herd in the red wolf recovery area, is healthier, the bucks have grown larger, and  their racks are bigger. Since red wolves also eat small predators, like raccoons and opossum, ground nesting critters like turkey, quail and songbirds are flourishing. For the same reason, when red wolves were placed on islands to acclimate them to the wild, sea turtle survival rates were also higher. There is no evidence indicating that red wolves have precipitated a “wildlife disaster” in the recovery area, as some opponents of the recovery effort have claimed.

Crying Wolf Over Hybridization

The best available science shows that hybridization—when red wolves mate with coyotes—is not the most significant threat to red wolf recovery. In fact, a recent study showed that “hybrids composed only four percent of individuals” in a large-scale study area. These hybridization events, though rare, also usually occur as a matter of necessity. With so few red wolves on the landscape, when a wolf is shot—which, to date, is the leading cause of red wolf deaths—its mate often has no choice but to pair bond with a coyote. On the other hand, when red wolves are within stable, healthy numbers, as they were about a decade ago, they push out and suppress coyotes, since they have no need for them. So, ultimately it’s something of a numbers game. The more red wolves we have, the fewer coyotes.

The Real Threat

By far the most significant challenge to red wolf recovery is simply the way in which red wolves are being managed. Since the program’s inception, red wolves were managed by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) biologists, working on the ground in Manteo, North Carolina. The program grew from 14 founders to nearly 150 wolves, and for a time, red wolves seemed poised for regional expansion. Sadly, this all changed due to shifting politics.

Succumbing to pressure from the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission and a few private landowners, FWS regional administrators stripped the recovery biologists of management control. Then they reassigned the red wolf recovery coordinator; abandoned the adaptive management strategy; virtually eliminated poaching enforcement (to date, dozens of red wolves have been killed, and no one has been prosecuted); allowed some landowners to shoot wolves; and began removing red wolves from private property. Consequently, around 75 wolves were lost in just two to three years.

A Disastrous Proposal

Adding insult to injury, the FWS has also proposed significantly scaling back the wild red wolf recovery effort. In particular, the agency has proposed shrinking the red wolf recovery area by almost ninety percent, confining one or two wolf packs to the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge and Dare County Bombing Range, and removing all other red wolves to zoos. As justification, the agency said that the captive population of red wolves is not secure, and to safeguard them, resources must be diverted from wild red wolves. The science does not support this whatsoever. In fact, the scientists whose study the agency relied upon condemned this proposal, stating that it was full of “alarming misinterpretations” and “will no doubt result in extinction of red wolves in the wild.”

What We’re Doing About It

Defenders has launched an exhaustive outreach campaign throughout the Southeast. We’ve held dozens of red wolf events, reaching thousands of people, and this much is clear: people care deeply about red wolves. In fact, a recent survey concluded that over 80 percent of North Carolinians believe that the FWS should do whatever it takes to recover red wolves. Defenders will continue to leverage this sweeping public support. We will also continue to develop landowner incentives for those who manage their land in a manner beneficial to red wolves, urge FWS administrators to recommit to full red wolf recovery in the wild, work with elected officials to revitalize the recovery effort, and inspire Defenders’ supporters to act on behalf of the world’s rarest wolf.

What You Can Do About It

Ten years ago, the red wolf recovery program was, even by the FWS’s admission, “remarkably successful.” We can achieve that level of success again, with your help.

Click here to speak up for the world’s most endangered wolf

Continue to support Defenders of Wildlife and join our Facebook group: Red Wolves-Defenders of Wildlife.


Christian Hunt

Christian Hunt

Southeast Program Representative
Christian Hunt is responsible for advancing Defenders' conservation objectives throughout the Southeast and defending public lands and listed species such as the red wolf, red knot and Florida panther, among others.

Follow Defenders of Wildlife