Red Wolf

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Red Wolf

Canis rufus

ListedMarch 11, 1967
FamilyCanidae (Dogs and Wolves)
DescriptionTawny red canine weighing about 50lb (22.7 kg)
HabitatHeavily vegetated areas, coastal prairie, and marsh.
ReproductionLitter of two to eight pups.
ThreatsReduction in habitat; hybridization.
RangeNorth Carolina


The red wolf, Canis rufus, has the size and appearance of a large dog. It is intermediate in size between the Endangered gray wolf (Canis lupus ) and the coyote (C. latrans ). Adults weigh between 40 and 80 lb (18 and 36 kg), males being larger. Despite its common and scientific name, this wolf shows a wide range of coloration, including red, brown, gray, black, and yellow.

Biologists believe that the species Canis rufus originally consisted of three subspecies: C. r. floridanus, an eastern subspecies that became extinct early in the twentieth century; C. r. rufus, a western subspecies, which was actually a red wolf-coyote hybrid and is believed extinct; and C. r. gregoryi, the only extant subspecies.


Little solid scientific knowledge exists on the life history of wild red wolves. It is believed that they have a less rigid social structure than gray wolves. Red wolves usually travel in groups of two or three, but lone wolves are not uncommon.

It is unknown whether red wolves form as strong a pair bond as gray wolves. Although captive wolf pairs exhibit a fondness for each other, greeting, playing, and nuzzling, they are not faithful to a single mate. Red wolf pups are born in April or May after a gestation period of about two months. Litter sizes in captivity have ranged from two to eight pups.

The red wolf is an opportunistic predator, taking species that offer an easy capture. In its last wild refuge red wolves preyed on nutria, rabbit, rice rat, muskrat, and raccoon. Wolves translocated to South Carolina preyed on fox squirrels, American coot, and other birds and small mammals. Unlike the gray wolf, the red wolf does not hunt in packs and is not considered a threat to larger livestock such as cattle. It will, however, prey on unattended young calves, pigs, and barnyard fowl.


The red wolf typically inhabited areas with heavy vegetative cover. Its final range consisted of coastal prairie and marsh in eastern Texas and western Louisiana. Heavy cover along bayous and in fallow fields were the primary resting and denning areas. From there, red wolves would range into rice fields and pastures. They would venture into coastal marshes, staying mostly on roads, in pursuit of the abundant prey living in the marsh.


The red wolf was originally found in a belt across the southeastern and south-central portion of the United States, from North Carolina to Texas and from the Gulf of Mexico to central Missouri and southern Illinois. It was also found occasionally in Mexico.

By 1994, the wolf existed in the wild only in experimental populations on the Fish and Wildlife Service's Alligator River and Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuges and adjacent private lands in Dare, Hyde, Tyrrell, and Washington Counties, North Carolina; and in the Park in Swain County, North Carolina, and Blount and Sevier Counties, Tennessee; and as an endangered species in three small island propagation projects located on Bulls Island, South Carolina; Horn Island, Mississippi; and St. Vincent Island, Florida. These five carefully managed wild populations contained a total of approximately 60 animals. The remaining red wolves were located in 31 captive-breeding facilities in the United States. The captive population in 1994 numbered approximately 180 animals.

As the range of red wolf began to shrink and become fragmented, the wolf began to interbreed with coyotes. This occurred to such an extent that biologists considered the animal extinct in the wild.

The final refuge for the red wolf in the United States was the coastal prairies and marshes of eastern Texas and western Louisiana, in the area south of Interstate Highway 10 in Jefferson and Orange counties, Texas, and Cameron and Calcasieu parishes, Louisiana, west of Calcasieu Lake. By the early 1970s the red wolf was found in small numbers in only the southernmost portion of this range.


All wolves in North America have been hunted to near extinction. As predators, wolves are the natural enemy of ranchers and farmers, and as fierce fighters, they are regarded with superstition and stereotyped by misinformation. Their populations have been so badly segmented that reproduction is greatly diminished because of an absence of suitable mates. This, in turn, has forced the red wolf to mate with coyotes, which has caused hybridization of the pure line.

Conservation and Recovery

When the Endangered Species Act became law in 1973, the red wolf was on the verge of extinction, with an estimated population of 100 animals or fewer. These wolves were being genetically swamped by interbreeding with the coyote (Canis latrans ) in their last habitat in southwestern Louisiana and southeastern Texas. To prevent extinction of the last few red wolves, a decision was made to remove them from the wild, place them in captivity for breeding purposes, and later reintroduce them to historic habitats. After capturing as many as possible and screening them for genetic purity, a founder population of 14 red wolves began the long process of recovery.

The formal Recovery Plan for the red wolf was developed and adopted by the Office of Endangered Species in the early 1970s. It was the first official recovery plan for an endangered species and has served as a prototype for subsequent plans.

In the case of the red wolf, recovery was initially complicated by the species' hybridization. The recovery plan laid out a very careful captive breeding program that focused on identifying true red wolves, bringing them into captivity, and breeding them. The goal of the program was always to reintroduce the red wolf to selected portions of its historic range.

Some of the last true red wolves were brought into a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) captive breeding program in the early 1970s. A breeding facility, funded by the FWS, was established at the Point Defiance Zoo in Tacoma, Washington. Eight other facilities throughout the United States have since joined in the captive breeding program: Audubon Park Zoo, New Orleans; Alexandria, Louisiana, Zoo; Texas Zoo, Victoria, Texas; Burnett Park Zoo, Liverpool, New York; Tallahassee Junior Museum, Tallahassee, Florida; Wild Canid Survival and Research Center, Eureka, Missouri; and the Los Angeles Zoo. The Fossil Rim Wildlife Center at Glen Rose, Texas, is also expected to join the program.

In the early 1980s, the FWS proposed establishing a wild population of red wolves on Tennessee Valley Authority's Land Between the Lakes. A plan was drafted and public hearings were held. However, public fear of a wild wolf population and confusion about the status of reintroduced animals under the Endangered Species Act resulted in the rejection of the plan by Tennessee and Kentucky wildlife agencies.

In September 1987, after a decade of effort, four pairs of true red wolves were returned to the wild at the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge in eastern North Carolina. This marked the first time a North American species considered extinct in the wild was returned to its natural habitat. The five-year experiment to reestablish a population of red wolves in Alligator River ended October 1, 1992. From September 14, 1987, through September 30, 1992, 42 wolves fitted with radio collars for tracking purposes were initially released on 15 occasions. Four releases were conducted in 1987, two in 1988, five in 1989, two in 1990, one in 1991, and one in 1992. As of September 30, 1992, there were at least 30 free-ranging wolves in northeastern North Carolina. Of the 42 wolves released, 22 died; seven were returned to captivity for management reasons; 11 were free-ranging through September 30, 1992; and the fates of two are unknown. Length of time in the wild varied from 16 days to 3.5 years.

Pairs of wolves were introduced to the refuge, using the "soft release" technique, which involves acclimating the animals in large open pens, feeding them local prey species, then securing the doors open. Eventually, the animals left the pens on their own.

Because the FWS was open about its effort and informed the public about the behavior and usefulness of the red wolf, public response in North Carolina, unlike the response in Tennessee and Kentucky, was overwhelmingly positive. Local residents have cooperated with naturalists by reporting wolf sightings, and much of the "wolf fear" appears to have abated. By almost every measure, the reintroduction experiment was successful and generated benefits that extended beyond the immediate preservation of red wolves to positively affect local citizens and communities, larger conservation efforts, and other imperiled species. This project was expanded west of Alligator River by releasing several family groups in 1993 into the Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge.

On November 12, 1991, the FWS, in cooperation with the National Park Service, experimentally released a single family group of red wolves into the Cades Cove area of the Park. This release was designed to assess the feasibility of eventually establishing a self-sustaining red wolf population on Park Service and surrounding U.S. Forest Service property.

On December 9, 1992, a second group of six wolves (two adults, four pups) was released from a remote backcountry site several miles east of Cades Cove. It is expected that these animals will be more difficult to track. However, they will provide needed information about the home range requirements of red wolves in habitat that is typical of the vast majority of the Park and surrounding Federal lands.

All released wolves wear transmitters and are monitored as closely as was the experimental group. There are no scheduled plans to recapture these animals, except to replace aging transmitters. The release was also used as a jumping-off point for evaluating the possibility of expanding the Park reintroduction to include adjacent national forest lands within the Nantahala and Pisgah National Forests in North Carolina, the Cherokee National Forest in Tennessee, and the Chattahoochee National Forest in Georgia.

In addition, several "island projects" are also under way to enhance the captive breeding program. This effort involves acclimating captive animals to an island, releasing them, then recapturing their wild offspring for release elsewhere. The first island project began in the summer of 1988 when an adult pair and their two pups were released on Bulls Island in Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge, South Carolina. Unfortunately, in September 1989, Bulls Island took a direct hit from Hurricane Hugo. The visitor's center at the refuge was completely destroyed and two of the five red wolves on the island perished in the storm surge. In January 1989, a second island propagation site was established off the Mississippi coast, on Horn Island, part of the Gulf Islands National Seashore.

The recovery goal for the red wolf is defined in the Red Wolf Recovery Plan as "at least three disjunct, wild populations." The recovery goal is further defined as approximately 220 animals in the wild and 330 in captivity. Each major reintroduction will require a minimum land area of about 225 sq mi (585 sq km), and some potential reintroduction sites will have resident coyote populations. By 1994, the Red Wolf Recovery Program was more than halfway to its captive breeding goal and over one-fourth of the way to its wild population goal.


U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
Division of Endangered Species
1875 Century Boulevard, Suite 200
Atlanta, Georgia 30345-3319
Telephone (404) 679-4159
Fax: (404) 679-1111

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
Asheville Ecological Services Field Office
160 Zillicoa Street
Asheville, North Carolina 28801-1082
Telephone (828) 258-3939
Fax: (828) 258-5330


Noecker, R.J. 1 August 1997. Reintroduction of Wolves. Congressional Research Service, Report for Congress. 97-747 ENR.

Nowak, R. M. 1972. "The Mysterious Wolf of the South." Natural History 81:51-53, 74-77.

Parker, W. T. 1988. "The Red Wolf." In W. J. Chandler, ed. Audubon Wildlife Report 1988/1989. Academic Press, San Diego.

Parker, W.T., R. Smith, T. Foose, and U.S. Seal. 1990.Red Wolf Recovery Plan. U.S. Department of the Interior, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. 1984. "Red Wolf Recovery Plan." U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Atlanta.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. 1993. Red Wolf, (Canis rufus ). Endangered and Threatened Species of the Southeastern United States (The Red Book), U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Region 4.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. 2000. Red wolf, (Canis rufus ).

Waddell, W. 1996. Species Survival Plan Profile: Red Wolves. Endangered Species Update, School of Natural Resources and Environment, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.