Red Wolf Recovery in the U.S.

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The Red Wolf (Canis rufus)

Wolf Haven International's involvement with the Red Wolf Species Survival Plan (SSP) is an exciting addition to working toward our mission of "Working for wolf conservation." A Species Survival Plan is a partnership between cooperating facilities, the American Zoological Association and, in the case of red wolves, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Wolf Haven has been a cooperator in the Red Wolf SSP since May 2003 and our first litter of red wolf pups was born in early spring of 2005.

Wolf Haven
Two red wolf pups born at Wolf Haven in spring, 2005. Photo by Julie Lawrence.

History of Red Wolves

The red wolf (Canis rufus) is one of the most endangered canids in the world. The red wolf’s historical distribution was once thought to be limited to the southeastern United States. Recent studies in canid genetics have suggested that the red wolf’s historic range extended further north into the northeastern U.S. and on into the Algonquin Provincial Park in southern Ontario, Canada. Red wolves, like their gray cousins, were victims of predator extermination programs and habitat loss. The most serious threat to the existence of red wolves, however, was not an issue for gray wolves at all. As gray wolves were eradicated in the western and northern U.S., coyotes experienced a population explosion and radically expanded their range east due to their ability to adapt to altered habitats and persecution. Due to lack of available breeding partners as the red wolf population fell to extreme low numbers, coyotes and red wolves began to interbreed as coyotes spread into red wolf range. By the late 1960's there were thought to be very few true red wolves remaining in the coastal areas of Texas and Louisiana.

History of the Recovery Program

Following their listing under the Preservation Act, and subsequently, the Endangered Species Act (ESA), an attempt was made to capture any remaining red wolves to initiate a captive breeding program. Of the 400 animals captured between 1973 and 1980, only 43 were sent to the first breeding facility, Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium in Tacoma, Washington. Only 14 of the 43 animals were eventually determined to be pure red wolves (rather than coyote hybrids) and were used to establish the population of red wolves that exists today. The first captive-born red wolves were born in 1977.

The First Wolf Reintroduction

The red wolf reintroduction was, in many ways, the pilot program for the other large wolf reintroduction projects that took place in the United States: gray wolves in the northern Rocky Mountains (Yellowstone and central Idaho) and the Mexican gray wolves in the southwest. The reintroduced red wolves were the first wolf population to receive the nonessential, experimental designation – created by a 1982 revision to the ESA – to allow for greater management flexibility of endangered species. Another strategy used for the red wolf program, which was later used for the gray wolf reintroductions, was the use of acclimation enclosures. Before a captive-bred wolf is released into the wild, they are acclimated (prepared for life in the wild following life in captivity) near where they are to be released. Red wolf recovery officials experimented with different acclimation periods and feeding scenarios, all while trying to minimize human contact with the soon-to-be-wild wolves. Four pairs of red wolves were released into Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge (ARNWR) in North Carolina in 1987.

Wolf Haven
Photo taken on the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge in North Carolina.

Red Wolves Today

There are currently about 100 free-ranging (wild) red wolves in eastern North Carolina. The recovery area has grown and now encompasses 1.7 million acres, which now includes four national wildlife refuges, including state land, private land and a Department of Defense bombing range. The red wolf recovery program has very different issues than the other wolf reintroduction programs in the United States.

Red Wolves and Livestock

Both the restoration efforts of gray wolves in the northern Rocky Mountains and the Mexican gray wolves in the American southwest have been focused on how to deal with the combination of wolves and livestock. The relationship between red wolves and the agriculture industry has been more amenable than those of their gray cousins – in fact, the presence of red wolves may be helpful to some farmers. The reintroduced red wolves prey primarily on white tailed deer, raccoon and rabbits. They also eat rodents, including a non-native pest called nutria. Originally from South America, nutria were imported into Louisiana in the 1930's as a fur bearer. After being either intentionally or accidentally released, the nutria population exploded across the southeast. Nutria can cause severe damage to wetlands, degrade the banks of waterways, and wreak havoc on crops. While there were objections from local citizens at the inception of the recovery program, with special rules allowing removal of wolves from private property at the request of the land owner, local tolerance of the new wolf population is relatively good.

Hybridization Continues

The success of the red wolf program has been haunted by one of the key factors in the demise of this species – the tendency of red wolves to breed with coyotes. One of the reasons that ARNWR was picked as the primary spot to release red wolves was that the refuge was thought to be free of coyotes. As the reintroduced red wolves successfully expanded their population and coyotes continued to move east, it became apparent that red wolves and coyotes were once again hybridizing. Innovative adaptive management techniques have been created and implemented with some success to mitigate hybridization and to ensure the integrity of the red wolf species.

Propagation Islands

Something else that has been tried by the red wolf program is the use of propagation islands. Captive-born red wolves have been relocated to remote islands off the Atlantic and Gulf coasts. While the islands are not appropriate for large or long-term red wolf populations, they facilitate the propagation of red wolves born in the wild in a controlled situation. Wild-born red wolves are then available to be introduced into the North Carolina population.

Fostering

The success of the red wolf program has been haunted by one of the key factors in the demise of this species – the tendency of red wolves to breed with coyotes. One of the reasons that ARNWR was picked as the primary spot to release red wolves was that the refuge was thought to be free of coyotes. As the reintroduced red wolves successfully expanded their population and coyotes continued to move east, it became apparent that red wolves and coyotes were once again hybridizing. Innovative adaptive management techniques have been created and implemented with some success to mitigate hybridization and to ensure the integrity of the red wolf species.

Another innovative plan the red wolf program has tried is called pup fostering. In the case of the red wolf program, fostering is taking very young pups, generally from the propagation island wolves, and introducing them into the dens of wild wolves. The purpose of fostering is to increase genetic diversity in the wild population.

Sissy
Sissy is a red wolf Wolf Haven resident. Photo by Julie Lawrence.

Captive Breeding

The red wolf recovery program has been a pioneer for wolf recovery in the captive population as well. As the livestock industry realized long ago, artificial insemination allows the sharing of genetically valuable material while minimizing stress to the animals, reducing costs, and facilitating breeding of at multiple locations nation-wide. Another benefit of artificial insemination to the wolves is allowing a genetically valuable male to remain bonded to his mate while donating his genes to multiple females and their litters. There are currently about 200 red wolves living in captivity in 40 red wolf facilities across the US, including Wolf Haven International.

Red Wolf Facts

Physical Appearance
Red wolves pelage is cinnamon-red often peppered with black and gray hairs down the back.

Size and Weight
Red wolves have a head and body length of 3 – 4 feet and a weigh from 45-65lbs.

Birth
Mating occurs from January – April. The young are born in the spring. Gestation period is 63 days, and there is one litter per year.

Diet
The red wolf’s diet consists of white tail deer and smaller mammals such as raccoons, rabbits and nutria. 

Pack
Like the gray wolf, the red wolf lives in packs, although the pack size is typically smaller than the gray wolves because they are not taking down such large prey, as elk and bison. Just as with the gray wolves, red wolf packs usually consist of a breeding pair and more than one generation of offspring. Because they are hunting smaller prey than gray wolves, it is believed that red wolves often hunt alone or in pairs.

Working for Wolf Conservation

The red wolf recovery program employs a multi-faceted approach that has seen a great deal of success. Wolf Haven is proud to be part of the program and is working toward contributing further to its success.

 

Questions? Email Wolf Haven's Director of Conservation, Linda Saunders.

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