and Humans Series
Wolf Biology and Status
Red Wolf Biology and Status
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
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
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
to see more red wolf information.
NOTE: You can receive the contents of this web
page on red wolves through an autoresponse
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
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.