Proactive efforts to revive a species that has long flirted with extinction in the wild are again underway.
Eight Red Wolves were recently released into a 1.7 million acre designated recovery zone in Eastern North Carolina.
The area is enclosed by fences for the time being, but the plan is to slowly integrate the species back into the ecosystem unfettered. The species no longer viably exists in the wild, although the captive breeding efforts have conserved a wild enough gene pool to make reintroduction attempts a worthwhile endeavor.
Red wolves are the other species of wild wolf in North America in addition to the gray wolf. Red wolves are in between coyotes and gray wolves in terms of size. Red wolves typically stand a little over 2 feet tall at the shoulder, measure about 4 feet long, and weigh 45-80 pounds.
Once common throughout the southeastern United States, red wolf populations were decimated by the 1960s due to intensive predator control programs and loss of habitat.
20 years ago there were believed to still be potentially as many as 200 red wolves roaming their native home on North Carolina’s eastern seaboard.
In February 2021, two male red wolves were released onto Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge in eastern North Carolina, increasing the total known population of wild red wolves from 8 to 10.
According to Outdoor Life, four more adult red wolves were just recently released, plus four pups were fostered to a female in hopes of rebuilding the world’s only wild population of the endangered species. The released animals came from breeding operations in Missouri, New York, Washington, and Ohio.
The zoos and conservation centers that house red wolves manage the animals in a way that allows them to retain natural instincts that will help them survive in the wild.
According to OBX today, the wolves aren’t habituated with humans, they’re housed in groups, and are fed natural food sources like deer to teach them what to hunt.
The use of wild wolves as foster parents is a creative conservation strategy that takes pups born in a managed captive setting and places them within a wild litter. A wild wolf mother will adopt the new additions as her own.
The reintroduction project is being lead by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) who was ordered by a federal judge to develop a plan for reintegrating captive wolves to the wild landscape.
Management decisions for the species have been tied up in court for years, but with the most recent ruling providing guidance, implementation of rate reintroduction plan are now underway.
By 1980 the species was believed to be ecologically extinct.
The North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission (NCWRCC) released the first breeding pairs of red wolves into North Carolina in 1987. By 1992, the agency had declared the experiment a success. In 2000, there were as many as 200 living in eastern North Carolina, primarily Dare and Hyde counties.
The species was managed by the USFWS until 2015 when the NCWRC took over control. From there the population declined rapidly and conflicts arose as the red wolves interbred with coyotes and expanding beyond the recovery zone.
2015 was also the same year that the USFWS stopped releasing captive red wolves into the wild. That same year, farmers were granted permission to trap and shoot nuisance wolves and coyote sterilization efforts in the area stopped.
The renewed efforts at reviving the historic red wolf population of North Carolina has draw support from several wildlife conservation organizations.