Listed as an endangered species in 1967, the red wolf (Canis rufus) was declared extinct in the wild in 1980. A native of the Southeastern U.S. for 10,000 years, the species has continued, albeit in low numbers, only because a small population of red wolves raised in captivity was reintroduced into a 1.7 million acre recovery area in northeastern North Carolina.

Between 2002 and 2014, according to the Animal Welfare Institute, “the wild red wolf population consistently numbered over 100 animals.” But from there, the story headed south. The Institute writes that by 2015, the red wolf population had dropped to an estimated 50 to 75 animals. The next year showed more loss, with an estimated 25 to 48 red wolves remaining. As of October 2021, only eight red wolves were known to be in the wild. Soon to join them, per a recent U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announcement, will be nine captive wolves that will be released into the North Carolina wild.

The Animal Welfare Institute says mismanagement by the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is responsible for the low numbers. Program management moved from red wolf biologists to bureaucrats in Atlanta, far removed from on-the-ground work. And landowners who didn’t like the recovery program continued to kill wolves, claiming innocence – “we thought it was a coyote.” As well, the government actually issued permits to kill red wolves on private land, even in the face of so few numbers. The Institute writes, “Given the small and declining number of red wolves, losing even one wolf has huge repercussions for the species.”

As an outsider looking in, the obvious solution would seem to be greater protections for wildlife in North Carolina, including no more killing of coyotes and wolves. The level of frustration with those who care about these animals and work most closely with them to save them must be off the charts – only eight in the wild and only in one state.

As an apex predator important to overall biodiversity, this species needs much more attention. A higher level of commitment to supporting a sustainable population in North Carolina is needed, more space and attention to captive breeding and more support for reintroduction of red wolves to other suitable areas where they could thrive.

Equally important is more public education. The maltreatment of the gray wolf, the larger cousin of the red wolf, which was also taken to the brink of extinction in America. The gray wolf has been reintroduced to some areas and found footing in a few parts of the U.S. – and seemingly as soon as there’s a bit of a foothold, there are those among us all too anxious to kill the animals.

Wildlife advocate and author Rick Lamplugh writes that by 1970, only about 700 wolves remained in the lower 48 states, down from an estimated 2 million prior to the arrival of colonists, who quickly eradicated wolves east of the Mississippi.

Multiple organizations are working on issues related to the survival of red wolves, with several zoos and nature centers housing captive animals totaling more than 200. Kudos to them. Among them are breeding programs managed by the Wolf Conservation Center at their Endangered Species Facility.

It’s great there are committed organizations, but it seems that we should be much farther along in higher numbers of animals and with more animals reintroduced into the wild. Even factoring in that science may move slowly, we are talking about decades since the few remaining red wolves were removed from the wild and placed into captive programs.

A program that hopefully will prove helpful in identifying appropriate areas for red wolf reintroduction is the Gulf Coast Canine Project. Breeding occurred among coyotes, gray wolves and eastern wolves, resulting in red wolf genetics in coyotes in southwest coastal Louisiana and the Gulf Coast of Texas – the coyotes have become reservoirs of genetic information for red wolves.

By tracking these coyotes with red wolf genes, researchers are assessing the genetic history to see what remains of the red wolf, looking to understand behavior and hoping to ultimately inform conservation and management of both red wolves and coyotes.

For more information and ways to help the red wolf, visit the North Carolina Wildlife Federation, Endangered Wolf Center, Wolf Conservation Center and Gulf Coast Canine Project, and read Rick Lamplugh.


Copyright 2022 Maria Fotopoulos, distributed by Cagle Cartoons newspaper syndicate

Maria Fotopoulos writes about the connection between overpopulation and biodiversity loss. Contact her on Facebook @BetheChangeforAnimals and [email protected].