Red Wolves

Photo by Jeff Goulden

The red wolf (Canis rufus) once ranged throughout the eastern and southcentral United States. Now, however, it is the most endangered canid in the world, and one of the rarest mammals, due to intensive predator control programs, degradation and alteration of its habitat, killing by hunters who mistake red wolves for coyotes, and the abandonment of the Red Wolf Recovery Program by the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS).

Designated as an endangered species in 1967, the red wolf was declared extinct in the wild in 1980. In 1987, an experimental population of red wolves who had been raised in captivity was reintroduced into eastern North Carolina. For 30 years, this population has lived—and until recently thrived—on its 1.7 million acre recovery area in eastern North Carolina’s Dare, Tyrell, Beaufort, Hyde, and Washington counties. This reintroduction was so successful that the USFWS, the agency responsible under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) for recovering the species, once called it a model for predator reintroductions.

Red wolf historical range with non-essential experimental population management area. Map by Jose Barrios, USFWS.
Red wolf historical range with non-essential experimental population management area. Map by Jose Barrios, USFWS.

From 2002 to 2014, the wild red wolf population consistently numbered over 100 animals. But starting in 2012, the population began to decline due to actions taken by the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission (NCWRC), and later due to mismanagement by the USFWS. By 2015, the population had declined to between 50 and 75 animals, and by 2016 it had dropped to between 25 and 48 animals. Although the USFWS released no new population estimates for 2017, it has admitted that as of November 2017, there were as few as two or three breeding pairs in the wild. It is widely believed that there are now fewer than 30 red wolves living in wild. Scientists have warned that if current management practices continue, red wolves could once again be extinct in the wild by 2024.

Throughout most of the recovery program’s history, shooting by hunters was the leading cause of red wolf deaths, a fact attributed to the similarity in appearance between coyotes and red wolves. Despite this, in 2012 the NCWRC approved a temporary rule allowing the hunting of coyotes at night using artificial lights on public and private lands throughout North Carolina, including in the recovery area. In 2013, the NCWRC adopted a permanent rule that allowed coyote hunting without a permit during the daytime and with a permit at nighttime in the recovery area. In response, in 2012 and 2013, AWI and others filed two lawsuits that successfully challenged both these rules These legal victories resulted in a sharp decline in red wolf mortality due to gunshot wounds. For more information on these cases, please visit our red wolf litigation page.

The threat posed by gunshot mortality was soon eclipsed by the numerous threats posed by the USFWS’s own shifting red wolf management practices. In 2013, the recovery program was transferred from the jurisdiction of the National Wildlife Refuge System (NWRS) to the Ecological Services Program. Although both the NWRS and Ecological Services are administered by the USFWS, the change meant that decision-making shifted from red wolf biologists to administrative staff in Atlanta, 600 miles away from the recovery area. Program policies shifted as well—away from successful conservation and toward appeasement of landowners hostile to the recovery program.

As a result, starting in 2014, the USFWS not only began to neglect its red wolf recovery and management duties, but also started issuing permits allowing landowners to kill red wolves on private land. In 2015, one of the animals killed was a female red wolf, known to be exhibiting denning behavior, who had previously mothered a total of 16 pups through four separate litters. The USFWS biologists believed the wolf was raising another litter of pups when she was killed, and may have still been nursing those pups. This wolf was killed simply because the landowner did not want her on his land, not because she posed a threat.

Given the small and declining number of red wolves, losing even one wolf has huge repercussions for the species. The impacts are particularly dire when a mother wolf is lost, because it not only orphans her pups and likely leads to their deaths, but also eliminates the possibility for that particular wolf to contribute more litters to the population. Furthermore, it disrupts the entire pack’s dynamics, increasing the likelihood of other red wolves hybridizing with coyotes: Although red wolves tend to form pair-bonds for life, red wolves may interbreed or hybridize with coyotes, particularly when an adult is lost from a breeding pair close to the mating season.

To make matters worse, the USFWS announced in 2015 that it was suspending red wolf reintroductions. These reintroductions—historically done by pup fostering, whereby pups bred in captive facilities are introduced into wild dens and “adopted” by a wild red wolf mother—have been used to bolster other losses to the population since the wolves were first reintroduced. The agency also began capturing and removing wolves from private land for placement in captive facilities. The USFWS cited declining genetic diversity in the captive population as justification for this action. The agency also ended coyote sterilizations, which had been crucial to the success of the red wolf reintroduction; to prevent wild red wolves from interbreeding with coyotes, the USFWS had, in the past, captured and sterilized coyotes within and near red wolf habitat.

As a result, in 2015, AWI and other groups filed a complaint against the USFWS for its failure to protect red wolves and for its illegal action in authorizing the killing of a breeding female. In 2016, the US District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina issued a preliminary injunction to prevent the “take” (e.g., kill, harm, harass, capture) of red wolves that do not pose a threat. In 2018, the court made the injunction permanent, and ruled that the USFWS’s actions violated the ESA, the National Environmental Policy Act, and USFWS regulations. For more information on this case, please visit our red wolf litigation page.

This significant victory is at risk of being undermined by a new USFWS Red Wolf Recovery Program rule that, if adopted, would reduce the existing red wolf recovery area by 90 percent, as indicated on the map below, to an area within a single county that could support fewer than 15 wolves.

Red wolf current and proposed non-essential experimental population. Map by Jose Barrios, USFWS.
Red wolf current and proposed non-essential experimental population. Map by Jose Barrios, USFWS.

It would also eliminate protections for any wolves that left the recovery area, authorizing the killing of any red wolves on private and state lands. If this rule is finalized, AWI and its co-plaintiffs will be back before the court to challenge the rule and continue to fight for the survival of red wolves.

Meanwhile, in an appropriations bill passed in March 2018, Congress directed the USFWS to obtain an independent assessment on the taxonomic status of the red wolf and the Mexican gray wolf. At the request of the USFWS, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine appointed a committee to conduct an independent analysis to assess whether the red wolf is a taxonomically valid species. AWI actively participated in and monitored the committee’s progress. In March 2019, the committee released its report, Evaluating the Taxonomic Status of the Mexican Gray Wolf and the Red Wolf, which found that the red wolf is indeed a taxonomically distinct species. This conclusion was based on morphological, behavioral, dietary, and genetic differences between red wolves, gray wolves, and coyotes, as well as reproductive isolation mechanisms. This finding is a key conservation victory—as those seeking to strip ESA protections from red wolves have long argued that the animal is a coyote subspecies or a gray wolf–coyote hybrid that does not merit an ESA listing. The report’s findings confirm that ESA protections are warranted.

Red wolves desperately need support from the USFWS and citizens to ensure that they have a future in the wild. To achieve this, AWI and allies launched a powerful advocacy campaign, “The Truth about Red Wolves,” to help spread the word about this amazing animal and increase public support for the wolf. The campaign website educated visitors about the ecological and economic benefits that red wolves bring to North Carolina and provides background information, key facts, and media updates on the species. The site was used to generate a petition signed by over 80 private landowners in the recovery area expressing their support for keeping endangered red wolves on their private land.