Inside The World’s Rarest and Most Endangered Wolf Species
The most-endangered wolf on Earth, the red wolf was once common throughout the eastern and south-central United States, thriving in nearly any habitat that offered sufficient water, cover and prey. By the 1970s, however, lethal, government-sponsored predator-control programs, along with habitat loss and degradation, had reduced the wolves to a single remnant population in coastal Texas and Louisiana. In a last-ditch effort to save the species from extinction, FWS biologists took every pure-blooded red wolf into captivity (just 17 animals), and in 1980, the species was declared extinct in the wild.
What followed was a Herculean effort by federal, state and nonprofit organizations to breed the wolves at zoos and other facilities across the country, intending to eventually release some of their pups to the wild. The first release took place in 1987 when four captive-born pairs were introduced to the Alligator River refuge. Later releases took place at several other sites across the eastern part of the state.
These reintroductions were something of a gamble. “Nothing like this had ever been done before with a large carnivore species,” says wolf biologist Regina Mossotti, vice coordinator of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums’ Red Wolf Species Survival Plan. Yet the experiment worked—spectacularly. “For decades after the reintroductions, red wolves flourished,” Mossotti says, with the state’s wolf population eventually reaching 150 individuals.
In the late 2000s, the red wolf’s fortunes began to change for the worse. A lapse in reintroductions and death at the hands of humans—via vehicle strikes and, especially, gunshots—drove wolf numbers down to fewer than two dozen animals today.
Many wolves that are shot are mistaken for their much-maligned canid cousin, the coyote. Not native to the East, these smaller, more-adaptable predators have steadily expanded their range beyond the West, thanks to habitat changes and the extermination of wolves, both red and gray, across much of the country. Coyotes also compete with red wolves for prey and dilute the species’ genes when the rare wolves, unable to locate mates of their kind, resort to breeding with their close relatives.
Still, some wolves—wrongly perceived as dangerous to humans—are likely shot deliberately. Indeed, “fear and misperceptions about wolves have further hindered recovery efforts,” says Jen Mihills, executive director of the National Wildlife Federation’s Mid-Atlantic Regional Center. To combat misunderstandings about the species, NWF and its state affiliate North Carolina Wildlife Federation are working with FWS biologists and conservation partners to increase landowner cooperation and social acceptance of the wolf.
In tandem with the species’ declining population, the number of red wolf pups born in the wild fell until, in 2019—for the first time in more than three decades—no wild pups at all were born. That’s one reason the fate of 2282 is critical, says Madison, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) wildlife biologist. When this issue went to press, six months after the wolves’ release, he reports that all three animals “remain alive and well on the landscape.”
“This is our best chance at having red wolf pups in the wild,” Madison adds—and the biologists’ best chance of preventing a second extinction of the wild Canis rufus.