International Wolf Center
Teaching the World About Wolves
Just for Kids Educators Wolf Basics Intermediate Information Scientific Articles & Abstracts Additional Resources
Wolf Basics - Red Wolf Biology and Status


Wolves and Humans Series




Wolf Pup Development

Gray Wolf Biology and Status

Red Wolf Biology and Status


Wolf Quiz


Red Wolf

updated November, 2004

The red wolf (Canis rufus) is distinguished from the gray wolf (Canis lupus) and the coyote (Canis latrans) by size and coloring. Intermediate in size between coyotes and gray wolves, red wolves average 45-80 pounds. They are mostly brown and buff colored sometimes with red shading around their ears, muzzle, and the backs of their legs. Red wolves are known to hunt individually and in packs, eating white-tailed deer, raccoons and small mammals such as rabbits and rodents. They have also been known to prey on domestic pets and livestock, but in very small numbers. Similar to gray wolves, red wolves live in the social structure of a pack, with a defended territory, an alpha breeding pair and older offspring to assist with pup rearing.

Scientific studies disagree over whether the red wolf is indeed a separate species, a subspecies of the gray wolf, or hybrid between gray wolves and coyotes. However, based on the available research the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has legally designated the red wolf, Canis rufus, a distinct species. Thus far, petitions to delist the red wolf on grounds that it is a hybrid have been defeated, and Canis rufus remains a protected species under federal law in the United States. To further complicate the issue, work on wolves in Algonquin Provincial Park, Canada suggest that wolves there are closely related to the red wolf. Researchers working in the park argue that the red wolf and eastern timber wolf should be joined as a species separate from the gray wolf. The debate is likely to continue for some time.

Regardless of its exact taxonomic designation, the red wolf is an animal with unique characteristics that add to the overall biodiversity of our wild lands. Under the Endangered Species Act, red wolves are considered endangered and are classified as experimental and nonessential, which minimizes the infringement on private landowner rights, yet provides managers the important tools to reintroduce and manage the species.

The red wolf recovery project in the eastern US has differed from gray wolf reintroduction projects in the western states. Unlike gray wolves, red wolves face an imminent threat of extinction. There are no wild populations of red wolves outside of the eastern US. The fact that gray wolves still exist in large numbers in the wild throughout the northern hemisphere has facilitated studying them. Until recently, research on red wolves was limited to studying captive animals and the few wolves that once roamed wild in Texas and Louisiana. Options for red wolf release sites are limited due to the dense human population of eastern states and lack of large tracts of undeveloped lands within their historic range. Although human development has certainly increased throughout the gray wolves' range as well, public lands and wilderness areas in the US and Canada offer suitable options for expanding the gray wolf's territory.

Red wolves were once well established as a top predator throughout the Southeast. Their original range is believed to be the entire eastern forested region of North America from southeastern Canada to the Gulf Coast. By 1920 the red wolf had been extirpated in most of the southern states and by 1970 less than 100 red wolves remained in the entire US, confined to a small area of coastal Texas and Louisiana. Early bounties and indiscriminate killing started the rapid decline of red wolves. Loss of habitat added to this decline in the mid 1900s as people cleared land for roads, livestock, agriculture, logging and mining.

Red wolf recovery initially focused on preserving and expanding the remaining wild red wolf population. However, as red wolf populations spiraled downward, coyote populations expanded eastward and established a foothold in areas that had been dominated by wolves. When the few remaining red wolves failed to find mates of their own species, many mated with coyotes. As this hybridization increased, the number of genetically pure red wolves decreased, further accelerating the decline of the red wolf. As a result, recovery efforts shifted in focus to capturing and breeding red wolves in captivity with a goal of future reintroduction. By 1980 the last red wolf was captured and the species was declared extinct in the wild.

Captive breeding has now preserved genetically pure red wolves. The red wolf recovery plan's goal is to maintain 330 genetically pure wolves in captivity and 220 wolves in the wild, within at least three self-sustaining populations.

With successful breeding, captive animals were first released in the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge, ARNWR, in northeastern North Carolina in 1987. ARNWR was an ideal site for reintroduction because it is surrounded on three sides by large bodies of water and there are low densities of humans, livestock and coyotes. This minimized concerns over wolf predation on livestock and cross breeding with coyotes. Within their first year in ARNWR the wolves successfully produced their first litter of pups in the wild. By 1993 captive wolves had also been successfully released in the Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge in North Carolina and Great Smoky Mountains National Park in TN, and on three island propagation sites off the Atlantic and Gulf Coasts.

Reintroduction in northeastern North Carolina has been a success, with a current population of about 100 free-ranging wolves. Efforts in the Great Smoky Mountains, however, were less successful. Low to almost non-existent pup survival prevented the released wolves from establishing and expanding home ranges and developing family groups within park boundaries. Biologists suspected disease, such as parvovirus, predation, malnutrition, and parasites as contributing factors. Reintroduction in the park was controversial from the start because of bordering livestock operations. Red wolves were responsible for depredation of a few calves on a lease operation within the park. The wolves were regularly seen on the outskirts of residential areas. Twenty-six of the 37 red wolves released in the Great Smoky Mountains between 1992 and 1996 died or were recaptured after straying outside of park boundaries onto private lands. In October of 1998, the US Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Park Service announced plans to recapture all red wolves that remained in the park and relocate them to northeastern North Carolina, ending efforts to restore red wolves in the Great Smoky Mountains. Horn Island was removed from the island propagation program that same year because of increasing probability of interactions with humans.

Other red wolves have been released on islands in the Atlantic and along the Gulf coasts as a steppingstone between captivity and the wild. Although these islands are not large enough to provide for the needs of more than a few red wolves at a time, they provide the opportunity for them to breed and exist in the wild in order to produce animals for future mainland reintroductions. Approximately, 4 red wolves reside at two island propagation sites and at least 281 pups have been born in the wild over four generations since the program's inception in 1987.

Today, due to an aggressive preservation effort mandated by the Endangered Species Act, red wolf numbers are slowly rising, and they again roam wild through parts of their historic range in eastern North America. Sixty-one of the approximately 100 wolves in the wild are radio-collared and tracked. Out of 22 known packs, 11 packs made dens in 2004, which resulted in 55 pups. In addition, there are around 160 in captive breeding facilities throughout the country.

The future of the red wolf is not yet secure. More than half of the population exists in captivity, and efforts to reintroduce them continually face challenges.

View the Timeline of Red Wolf History

Click here to see more red wolf information.

NOTE: You can receive the contents of this web page on red wolves through an autoresponse email.


Nowak, R.M., M.K. Phillips, V.G. Henry, W.C. Hunter, and R. Smith. 1992. The origin and fate of the red wolf. Found in L.N. Carbyn et al. eds Ecology and Conservation of Wolves in a Changing World. Circumpolar Institute, Occasional Publication No. 35, 642 pages.

Steinhart, P. 1996. The Company of Wolves. Knopf, Inc., New York, NY. 374 pages.

US Fish and Wildlife Service. 1989. Red Wolf Recovery Plan. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Atlanta, GA. 110 pages.

Become a member today!
Sign up to receive news and special offers
Donate Now.
Contribute to Education about Wolves!

Moose-Wolf Interactions - A 1000 lb Dinner
Wolves, Eagles, & Bears, Oh My!
May 11 to 13

Immerse yourself in the world of Minnesota's greatest wildlife treasures.

Track Wild Wolves
Use our online telemetry database.

International Wolf Center
Teaching the
World about Wolves
1396 Highway 169
Ely, MN 55731-8129

Contact with technical site questions.

Web photo use policy