Red wolves are one of the most endangered canids in the world, and two are housed at Rowan Wild right here in Rowan County. Currently, there are just over 200 Red Wolves in captivity in the U.S. and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimates that there are less than 20 wild red wolves left in the world, the entire remaining wild population living in a small area in eastern North Carolina. Red wolves used to be common throughout the eastern and southern central United States, but their numbers have diminished dangerously low.
The Red Wolf (Canis rufus) is native to North America and is in between the size of a coyote (Canis latrans) and a gray wolf (Canis lupus). Adult red wolves range in weight from 45 to 80 pounds and have wide heads with broad muzzles. They have tall pointed ears, and long, slender legs with large feet. Red wolves stand about 26 inches at their shoulder and are about four feet long from tip to tail. They are mostly brown with some black along their backs, characterized by a reddish color on their ears, heads, and legs.
The diet of the red wolf varies depending on the available prey, but they predominately eat a combination of white-tailed deer, racoons, rabbits, rodents, and nutria. They can consume two to five pounds of food daily and are opportunistic feeders, meaning they will travel to find their food, sometimes up to 20 miles a day.
Red wolves live in tight-knit packs, which generally comprise five to eight wolves, including a breeding adult pair and their offspring of different years. Older offspring will help with pup rearing, but most offspring between one and two years will leave the pack to form their own. Red wolves have specific territories that they will defend against other canids.
Red wolves form pair-bonds for life, meaning they will only have one mate. Mating season is once a year in February, and pups are typically born in April or May. Dens are located in hollow trees, stream banks, sand knolls, or holes dug near downed logs or other forest debris. Unfortunately, fewer than half of the wolf pups born in the wild survive until adulthood. Disease, malnutrition, and predation destroy red wolf pups before they can fully mature.
Red wolves are elusive and timid creatures, staying far away from humans and human populated areas. They are most active at dusk and dawn. Megan Cline, Naturalist and Animal Care Specialist at Rowan Wild said that while red wolves appear similar in appearance to coyotes, they are very different. “Red wolves appear similar to coyotes but are larger in size. Red wolves are more timid and will avoid human interaction if at all possible, unlike coyotes that have adapted to live amongst humans and have even been seen in cities.”
“Wolves protect the health of the ecosystem,” says Christian Hunt, Program Associate for Defenders of Wildlife’s Southeast Region. “Red wolves prey upon nest predators, such as raccoons and opossum, which allows the turkey, quail and songbird populations to grow. Red wolves also eat invasive species, which otherwise damage farmers’ crops.”
The Rise and Fall of the Red Wolves
Red wolves used to roam from the plains of Texas to the swamps of Florida to the forests of New England. Degradation and alteration of the species’ habitat and intensive predator control programs decimated the red wolf population by the early 20th century, driving the red wolf nearly to extinction. Currently, gunshot mortality, political inaction, and agency mismanagement are the red wolves’ greatest threats.
In 1967, the red wolf was declared endangered. In an attempt to save them from extinction, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service removed the last wild wolves in the early 1970s. With only 14 animals left, they began a captive breeding program. In 1987, eight pairs for red wolves were released into eastern North Carolina in the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge in Dare County. The Red Wolf Recovery Area was a 1/7 million acres in a five-county area including Dare, Hyde, Tyrell, Washington, and Beaufort counties. The introduction was considered one of the world’s most innovative and successful efforts to restore a critically endangered carnivore, and by 2006 the wolves’ population had reached nearly 130. That number held fairly steady until about 2012.
In 2012, the red wolf population took a turn for the worst, declining drastically. After red wolves were reintroduced to North Carolina, releases of captive-born pups and sterilization of coyotes that competed for space and other resources bolstered wolf numbers. However, in 2015 the N.C. government abandoned efforts to protect and recover the red wolves amid pressure from conservative politicians and landowners who believe that the wolves are a nuisance. Besides those changes, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) proposed a new rule that would restrict the red wolves to one National Wildlife Refuge and a bombing range in eastern North Carolina, reducing the recovery area by almost 90 percent. The rule also allowed the immediate killing of any wolves that live on or wander onto non-federal land in what was once a five-county Red Wolf Recovery Area. Thankfully, a court order on November 4, 2018 halted that ruling by the USFWS after environmental groups won a court victory where a federal judge ruled that the Fish and Wildlife Service had violated the Endangered Species Act by failing to effectively conserve the species.
Nonetheless, the wild red wolf population remains in jeopardy as the USFWS has failed to resume previously successful conservation methods. No new captive-born wolves have been released into the wild population, and there has been no coyote management in the recovery areas. Coyotes pose a threat to the red wolves as the compete for valuable resources and humans end up shooting red wolves thinking they were coyotes. The International Union for Conservation of Nature classified the red wolves as critically endangered, and as of 2019, only 14 red wolves were known to remain in the wild. No new litters of red wolf pups were born in the wild in 2019, the first in the history of the reintroduction program.
In November 2019, Gov. Roy Cooper sent the Secretary of the Interior a letter warning that “with no more than 14 known wolves in the wild, the American red wolf is on the brink of extinction.” The USFWS issued a statement saying that it will begin updating plans for recovery in 2020 and will appoint a panel of scientists to advise them on the process.
Even with the court order, the agency has said very little about its long-term plans. Collette Adkins, an attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity said, “It’s just so frustrating that they’ve done so very little at the same time that the population numbers are plummeting. It’s a really scary situation out there. We could see the extinction of the red wolf. They’ve had a court order telling them to do more, and in fact, it seems like they’re doing less. It’s really frustrating.”
“Red Wolves face several challenges of establishing a thriving permanent residence in the wild in North Carolina,” says Megan Cline. “Some are human related such as habitat destruction, vehicle collision, and fear and misunderstanding of the species. However, the coyote populations continue to increase making it difficult for red wolves to survive.”
Rowan Wild – Helping to Save the Red Wolves
Rowan Wild at Dan Nicholas Park is one of 43 partners in the Red Wolf Species Survival Plan (RWSPP). The RWSPP is a collaborative effort between the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Association of Zoo and Aquariums (AZA), and other similar partners. Each year, the RWSSP meets to discuss the current population and plan any breeding recommendations for the upcoming year.
According to Megan, “Currently, the focus has shifted from reintroduction into the wild to the captive population. The goal is to increase the captive population from just over 200 animals in hopes to double that so that the species isn’t completely lost. They are also exploring other possible sites for reintroduction outside of North Carolina.”
When Wildlife Adventures expanded in 2005, the addition of red wolves was suggested. “Being that Rowan Wild focuses on North Carolina species, we decided red wolves would be a great addition, especially since most people have never seen a red wolf, nor do they know they are one of the most critically endangered species that can only be found here in North Carolina,” says Megan. “After meeting with the RWSSP and building an enclosure based on guidelines from the RWSSP, the first wolves arrived in 2005 and in 2007 a litter of five pups were born.”
Rowan Wild houses two red wolves, one male and one female, both about four-years-old. “The male came to us in 2018 from Chehaw Zoo in Albany, GA. Luckily, Chehaw Zoo is close enough that allowed staff to meet halfway to pick him up and drive him back.” The female had a longer journey, coming all the way from Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium in Tacoma, WA. “She needed a plane ticket,” Megan recalled. “She flew into the Raleigh airport and staff picked her up there. No worries though! She was secured in a large metal crate made for transporting animals that allows airflow, but yet safety for her and everyone around her.”
All-in-all, the wolves have a great life at Rowan Wild. Keepers provide care for the wolves daily, which includes feeding, cleaning their areas, and providing environmental enrichment activities in accordance with the RWSSP guidelines. Megan defined environmental enrichment as “manipulation to an animal’s environment to promote brain stimulus. This can be in the form of novelty food items, scents, sounds, textures, or other miscellaneous items.”
To visit these critically endangered species, visit Rowan Wild at Dan Nicholas Park! Rowan Wild hosts several other animals such as snakes, raptors – like hawks, owls, falcons, vultures, and eagles – and mammals – including groundhogs, raccoons, foxes, bobcats, black bears, deer, and yes, the two red wolves.
If you’re interested in helping the red wolves, contact the Red Wolf Coalition at www.redwolves.com.