Scientific name: Canis Rufus

The red wolf is a type of wolf found in the southern part of the United States. Sadly, they are almost extinct in the wild. The only wild populations of red wolves are experimental groups in North Carolina, Tenessee, Missisippi, and Florida. There are around 300 surviving red wolves; over 3/4ths of them are in captivity.

Red wolves are larger than coyotes, but smaller than gray wolves. Their fur is often tan colored, but gray and black red wolves have also been found. When fully grown, red wolves weigh between 40 and 80 pounds. Red wolves eat any small animal, but prefer raccoon and white-tailed deer.
Red wolves mate for life. Red wolf cubs tend to live far from their parents, in a range of their own.

The Reintroduction of the Red Wolf

A Project on the Effects of Reintroduction of a Top Carnivore to the Wild

When Europeans first landed in North America, wolf populations in the United States were healthy and comprised of two main species: the southeastern red (Canis rufus) and the gray (Canis lupus). The smaller of the two, the red wolf is a medium-sized canine which closely resembles the coyote, although it is somewhat larger. Its coloration is similar to the coyote's, although it is somewhat redder. It is a carnivore, feeding mainly on young ungulates (including cattle, bison, and deer), small mammals, and rodents. It makes its den in enclosed, covered areas such as caves, hollow trees, drainage culverts, etc. Red wolves mate for life. 21

Starting in the late 1800's, settlers in the Western United States began to hunt the bison and elk which were a main source of food for the wolves, and raise cattle. Not surprisingly, wolves (along with other predators such as mountain lions and grizzly bears) began to hunt the cattle, an act which soon sealed their fate. The settlers began a systematic eradication of both species. Ranchers and the state government paid bounties to hunters for each dead wolf. In 1905, the state began infecting captured wolves with mange and releasing them to infect wild wolf populations. Not only were the wolves targeted for eradication, but humans continually encroached upon their territory. In the 1920's, the government passed a law requiring the use of bounties and poison to ensure the eradication of wolves from all public lands. 1,23

By 1930, neither species was in very good shape. There were isolated pockets of both species, but the wolves within these small pockets were interbreeding and their numbers were rapidly dwindling. The gray wolf had some breathing room since much of its native land had not yet been settled by man, but the red wolf was in serious trouble. In 1967 it was declared an endangered species, and by 1979 all red wolves had been removed from the wild in an attempt to establish a breeding program. In November of 1973, the US Fish and Wildlife Service created the Red Wolf Recovery program. The objectives of this program were "to certify the genetic purity of wild-caught wolves, and to breed animals for future reintroduction into the wild". As an experiment, a single pair of wolves were released on Bulls Island, South Carolina, at the Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge, and was recaptured six months later and found to be in good health. From 1982 to 1984 the USFWS fought several times to establish a permanent population of wolves in the Tennessee Valley Authority's Land Between the Lakes, and were at last successful.21 After several years of captive breeding, in 1987 the first red wolves were reintroduced into the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge. Wolves were also established on Bulls Island off of the coast of South Carolina to provide a semi-wild, but controlled group of wolves. In 1989 wolves were released off of the coast of Mississippi on Horn Island and in 1990 another island project was established off of the coast of Florida on St. Vincent Island. This project used the island to breed wolves and wean them, and then sent them to reintroduction sites such as the Alligator River Refuge. 22 In 1991, some of these wolves were sent to the Great Smoky Mountain National Forest in Tennessee. In 1994 more wolves were introduced to the nearby Pocosian Lakes National Wildlife Refuge.2 These original wolves (being captive born) were only somewhat successful but did have several offspring. These offspring, having been born and raised in the wild, were much more successful.3

The red wolf project has been in existence for over 20 years. From the first time wolves were captured to establish a breeding captive population to the present, this program has existed to try to right the wrongs of previous generations and to restore this magnificent beast to the wild. The reintroduction of the red wolf can be evaluated from several different perspectives. The main perspectives that this paper will examine are political, legal, social, ecological, and whether the project is successful enough to warrant further investments.


Various political groups have differing opinions on the wisdom and success of red wolf reintroduction; these groups range from the federal government, to local government, to political environmental groups such as the Sierra Club. The United States Fish and Wildlife Service, because they have authority over endangered species due to the Endangered Species Preservation Act of 1966, has been the principal agency involved in the breeding, tracking, and management of the wolf. They have received help from the National Park service whose land the USFWS service is using for the project, and other agencies such as the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources.

The government's financial expenditure for this project has been extensive. For example, the bill for the work done in the Smokies4 plus the work done in the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge was around $110,000. This was possible due to a majority of environmentally-friendly Democrats in Congress. However, in 1994 a right wing, pro-business, Republican majority was elected. They cut vast amounts of money to endangered species programs and to environmental programs in general,5 and have been described as having “the worst environmental record in history.” 5 There have been “mass attacks on the nation's environmental laws.” 5 The red wolf program just barely eaked along during the past few years. In 1995, a rider bill was just narrowly defeated that would have suspended all funding to the program. 2

The local governments of two of the counties that surround the introduction site in the eastern part of North Carolina have recently passed resolutions that the wolves be removed from their counties.6 These counties, along with two other individuals, have filed lawsuits against the US Fish and Wildlife Service demanding that the government to allow them to trap and kill any wolves which wander onto private property. (Currently they may legally only kill wolves which are endangering people or livestock, due to the wolves' status as “experimental nonessential”.) Both these resolutions and the lawsuits are largely fueled by ignorance or fear on the part of the citizens. Also, based on survey evidence, this is largely the work of a small, but vocal minority. There has never been a documented attack on a human by a red wolf in the wild.6 Unfortunately, both of these counties share a border with the Pocosian National Wildlife Refuge, where wolves and people tend to come into close contact. The Alligator River NWR is largely secluded from man, but Pocosian is not. Though the FWS has approached many land owners with requests to allow wolves on their private land surrounding the refuge, this has failed to solve the problem: just as the wolves were loath to remain on public land, neither were they willing to stay on land owned by landowners who had given permission for them to be there.

As an alternate approach, the Fish and Wildlife Service is attempting to solve the problem through community education by going to schools and other community institutions to teach the young about the wolves. While education is helping to mitigate the problem, the FWS was forced to designate the populations as experimental/non-essential, meaning that residents may kill wolves on private lands if they are in the action of threatening or killing livestock. In an attempt to reduce killings, the Fish and Wildlife Service has set up a fund to reimburse property owners who lose livestock to the wolves, and has promised to remove problem animals from the areas where they are causing complaints.

We should be able to predict the public's response to the reintroduction of red wolves by looking at its reaction to the reintroduction of gray wolves. The gray wolf was eradicated inside Yellowstone National Park by 1926, and was added to the national endangered species list in 1973. The 100th and 101st congress approved $200,000 to be used for restoring the gray wolf to Yellowstone National Park23, but, predictably, special interest groups blocked the passage of the bill which would have paid for a study leading up to the creation of an Environmental Impact Statement for the proposed reintroduction. But the next meeting of Congress established the Wolf Management Committee, which submitted a plan calling for the reintroduction of the gray wolf to Yellowstone and, in 1992, open houses were held to gauge public opinion on the proposal. An overwhelming majority (1,300 for to 200 against) of the respondents were in favor of wolf reintroduction. Most of the notable objections were from ranchers, who were afraid that the wolves would kill their livestock. Others pointed out the cost of the program: the US government had spent more than 6 million dollars on the project.

The Sierra Club of the Charleston area suggested in February that the red wolf should be reintroduced to the Francis Marion National Forest in the Low country of South Carolina. A poll on the issue resulted in 89% of residents voicing approval.7 On the other side of the issue are the groups that oppose the reintroduction of the red wolf back into the wild, such as CROWN (Citizens Rights Over Wolves Now). A group of sheep and beef farmers in Tennessee are also opposed to the wolves that have been released in the Great Smoky Mountain National Park, due to livestock losses. These groups are determined, mainly for financial reasons, that this project cannot continue. For this project to continue, a successful compromise must be reached with these groups of landowners and farmers.


Various groups in opposition to the project have filed a lawsuit to bring it to a halt, based on the publications of two University of California researchers. Using mitochondrial DNA techniques, the researchers claim to be able to prove that the red wolf is not actually a distinct species at all. Instead, it appears that the wolf's mitochondrial DNA is a hybrid between that of a gray wolf and a coyote.6 Since the current policy of the USFWS dictates that only genetically distinct plants and animals can be protected, such a finding may be used to force an end to the project.6 The lawsuit in this case bases its claim that the program should be stopped as it is not serving to protect an endangered species. Those who filed this lawsuit have no real concern for the success of this project, nor do they have concern for the future of the wolf. At the root of their lawsuit is the simple protection of their livestock which borders on the Smoky Mountain National Park. A similar lawsuit has also been filed by land owners surrounding the Pocasion National Wildlife Refuge.

Even if the red wolf were found to be a hybrid, the species would still be worth saving. The red wolf has played a huge part in the history and heritage of the South. Curtis Carley, who founded the red wolf recovery program in 1973 states “whatever the red wolf is, the wolves we have in captivity seem to breed true and represent the southeastern canine that has been recorded as part of our heratige.”1 The red wolf's confused genetic makeup has many wondering whether this project will go much further.8 If the red wolf is recognized as a hybrid, then it will not be recognized as an endangered species under the federal government's Endangered Species Act, and the funding for this project will vanish. If that happens, then the fate of the red wolf is probably doomed.


The nearby sites of the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge and the Pocasion National Wildlife Refuge lie in one of the poorest sections of North Carolina. The project has created a boom in the tourism trade in eastern North Carolina and in the area of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. According to a Cornell University study, the project will probably bring in around $37.5 million dollars to the area of eastern North Carolina in which the wolves exist.9 Overall, the Cornell study stated, the project will directly bring $170 million dollars to the two areas in which the wolves have been reintroduced.10 According to the study, around 75% of the people polled supported the project, and 70% of the people polled supported an expansion of the project into a third site.10 Another survey, directed by a North Carolina State graduate student, found that a majority of residents in the five eastern North Carolina counties most impacted by the program support the program. 11 According to this survey, 51.7% of the residents support the program, while 30.2% oppose it.12 This data shows that, while there is significant social unrest because of the wolves, it is largely being caused by a vocal minority. But the issues that this minority has raised must be addressed, as the minority includes wealthy landowners who have the ears of the local and state governments.

Another social aspect that needs to be addressed is the residents' fears of the wolves. The public perceives wolves to be vicious hunters, preying on livestock and attacking defenseless travelers. According to one source, “the principal fear of many locals is that a hungry red wolf will attack a child.” 6 The residents need to be assured that there has never been a “documented case in modern times of a healthy red wolf attacking a human.”6 While “several gray wolves have bitten campers in Canada,” “they were lone animals looking for handouts.”6 This problem most likely resulted from the wolves being fed by tourists and coming to associate humans with free, easy food. In a normal, healthy, wild population, wolves would get plenty to eat by catching small game animals. In these areas in Canada, humans have eliminated much of their prey base due to hunting, recreational activities, and habitat destruction.24 The wolves in both release locations will have a large prey base, asmost of their prey are in a state of overpopulation due to a lack of predators, so it is unlikely that red wolves will feel the need to venture close to humans for food. As more and more of the wild ranging population is “born in the wild, the less likely they will show up in peoples yards and on roadsides.”6

While there have been several supposed incidents involving wolves killing livestock, there have actually been only three documented cases in which wolves were implicated. Two involved hunting dogs straying into wolves' territory. The other was a wolf in a goat pen. The team involved with the wolves in eastern North Carolina have investigated many other complaints “in which pets or livestock were killed, but no wolf involvement was found. On several occasions the team caught feral dogs.”13 On one occasion “someone complained about the killing of 12 bantam chickens and two guinea hens, the evidence pointed to the owner's German Shepherd.”13 These incidents serve to show that the people of this area are becoming quick to blame everything on the red wolf, when many of the problems have nothing to do with the wolf. As more of the wolves are born in the wild, they will lose their tolerance of man and begin to avoid any contact with human civilization. For this project to succeed though, it is not enough hat the wolves refrain from attacking humans: the misconceptions and misplaced fear and anger that many of the residents of the surrounding counties are feeling must be alleviated by the Fish and Wildlife Service. Time and education will probably solve these problems if the program is allowed to continue.


Another dimension to consider in the red wolf project is the ecological problems and benefits of reintroducing a top carnivore into an environment that has been without that top carnivore for some time. The red wolf is by far not the only species that mankind has nearly destroyed: the white-tailed deer, the wild turkey, and the bald eagle are other visible examples. These species have all made remarkable comebacks thanks to the Endangered Species Act and responsible hunting practices adopted during the 1960's. The white-tailed deer population, with no natural predator left in the wild except for man, has exploded in recent years. There are so many deer in the wild now, that many of them face starvation due to intraspecific competition. With the reintroduction of the red wolf to the wild, the deer population will probably be made both smaller and more healthy as the wolves cull sickly or less fit animals. Wolves also prey on raccoon, marsh rabbit, and non-native nutria (a South-American rodent that burrows out the land surrounding bodies of water leading to increased erosion). The population of these creatures will be controlled back to normal, healthy levels by a functioning wild population of wolves.

Ecological problems with the program do exist though. Just because people decide to reintroduce red wolves to several areas around the nation, doesn't mean that there will be a successful restoration of a functional wild population of red wolves. When wolves were made extinct in the wild by the capture of the last remaining members of the species, a huge body of the wolves' knowledge was lost. When a young wolf is born in the wild, it learns many skills and techniques from other wild wolves. By capturing and caging the last of the wild red wolves, we created a situation in which young wolves have nothing to teach them the skills which are essential to survival in the wild. These lessons must be learned for the first time by captive-born wolves and their offspring when they are released. This process is very dangerous to the life of the animal, and it is doubtful that all of the lost knowledge will be regained.

Unfortunately, there is not enough land remaining in any of the refuges to support a large population of wolves. Wolves have large home territories, ranging from 25 up to 100 square miles in some locations, and have been known to roam up to 700 miles from their place of birth.14 With a home territory this large, it is hard to find enough deserted areas to provide habitat for the wolves. Red wolves are pack animals, which means that they roam in groups of anywhere from two to over twenty-five animals. In the wild, some individuals leave their packs and band together to form a new pack. In order to maximize birth rates, the USFWS has attempted to create as many packs as possible by reintroducing pairs of mated wolves. The wolves are socialized to one another by living less than a year in holding pens, where they are given the carcasses of their intended prey animals to feed upon. It is extremely difficult to find enough land for a home territory, with adequate prey and little human intervention, for each new pack of wolves. 25

Another ecological problem is the small size of the wolves' population. The red wolves' “population is threatened by its smallness, many events (e.g., disease outbreaks) can cause extinction of small populations.”15 This has actually happened in the Great Smoky Mountains National Forest group of wolves, when the young of several years in a row have been killed by the canine parvo virus.16 Other catastrophes, such as severe weather (e.g. a hurricane) could also wreak havoc on the wild population of red wolves. Another problem is that there is very little genetic variance among the red wolves. All 270-300 red wolves in existence17 are the offspring of 14 original wolves.8 This issue is one without a solution, as the 14 red wolves were the only pure breeding red wolves in existence when the project was started. Any detrimental recessive alleles present in the population are sure to be expressed often. All of these ecological problems must be addressed before the survival of the wolf can be assured.

Fortunately, we can once again look to the relocation of gray wolves into Yellowstone to help predict what wolves might do when reintroduced into North Carolina. Currently, gray wolves prosper in Yellowstone National Park and central Idaho. Yellowstone currently has nine wolfpacks, which produced eleven litters of pups in Spring 1997. It is estimated that these new pups will double the current population of wolves, from 47 up to around 100. The abundant supply of elk and deer are part of the reason for the wolves' success. From January to June 1996, the wolves kept pretty much to themselves, killing only four sheep and five lambs inside the state of Montana. (The group “Defenders of Wildlife” have agreed to pay up to $6,000 per year to reimburse ranchers who lose livestock to wolves. The total amount of damage for the first half of 1996 came to only $660.)26 Of course, there are differences between the two programs: the gray wolves were all wild-born in Alaska and Canada, and were simply moved into Yellowstone, while the red wolves that are being released are all born in captivity. If trends are to be believed, though, hopefully future generations of wild-born gray wolves will end up causing as little damage, and being as successful as, their gray cousins.

Is it successful enough to continue?

While the project has clearly been successful in some areas, its success in other areas is less clear. When the project was started there were only 14 wolves remaining,8 and now there are almost 300 wolves alive.17 This, in itself, is an accomplishment. Of those 270-300 wolves, 220 are part of the captive breeding program and 50-70 exist in the wild. This project was the first ever reintroduction of a species previously extinct in the wild. Many problems have surfaced, largely due to a lack of experience with wildlife reintroduction.

The project has created two growing populations in the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge and the Pocosian Lakes National Wildlife Refuge. More importantly, the project has provided a rallying symbol for the public for endangered species reintroductions. There have been and are still many problems with the program, though. The wolves seem to have had a hard time adjusting to life in the wild. All of the originally released wolves were born in captivity, used to human contact and to humans providing them with food. When the captive bred wolves were first to be introduced, the trainers knew that “transforming captive-bred wolves into wild wolves would involve much more then simply opening the door and waving goodbye. Wolves born in captivity needed time to acclimatize to their new surroundings, to adjust from a regular captive diet to one of sporadic road-kill carcasses and live prey.” 8 The introduction “was not a completely successful”18 project at first. The problem was that “some of the animals weren't sufficiently savvy or cautious-in short, they were not wild enough.”18 The wolves released at Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge “had a hard time. Although small game was plentiful, the captive-raised wolves had to both learn how to hunt and to avoid roads. Some were killed by motor vehicles. Others drowned in rivers or swamps or died fighting rivals. Eventually they began to get the hang of surviving in the wild.”13 The wild offspring of these original wolves have done a much better job of surviving. As of February 1997, 45 wolves were in the wild and accounted for, and 89% of these were wild born.3

For the most part, reintroduced wolves have had a difficult time surviving in the wild. As of February, 1997, 33 of the 71 released wolves were known to have died in the wild in Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge and Pocosian Lakes National Wildlife Refuge (a 46% mortality rate).3 The good news is that 111 wolves have been born in the wild, and of this number only 33 are known to have died. As more wolves are born in the wild, we can expect the mortality rate among the wolf population to continue to drop. The deaths have been almost all been due to accidental causes: automobile strikes, intraspecific aggression, drowning, and one gunshot wound.3 Diseases, including “hookworm, heartworm, distemper, and parvo virus”, have also taken their toll on the population. The Fish and Wildlife service addressed these concerns by vaccinating all of the wolves against these diseases. 17

So, does the success of the wolves' reintroduction merit the ongoing funding of the program? Currently, it seems that at least some would answer that question with a "yes". Using what they have learned from the experimental reintroduction in North Carolina, the USFWS has scheduled a reintroduction of red wolves into Arizona in early 1998. They have also drafted plans to reintroduce wolves to New York's Adirondack Park, although these plans have not yet been approved nor set into motion. However, the US Senate and House of Representatives have approved funding for an environmental impact study on the effects of wolf reintroduction into Olympic National Park in the state of Washington. If these projects are approved and actually take place, it will be a large step towards the recovery of a healthy, functional population of wild red wolves.

In order for the red wolf to continue making a recovery, this project is essential. There are some very serious obstacles that stand in the way of the project. But many obstacles have already been overcome. The political, legal, social, and ecological dimensions of this program must be carefully considered before anything further can happen. This project can work, but in the words of Gary Henry, coordinator of the red wolf recovery program, “it's going to take a lot of compromise and trust.”

Essay written on Dec. 2, 1997 by Bonnie Barsh, Joe Bayes, Kevin Disher, Theresa Fu, Thomas Soltau

  1. Return of the Red Wolf. Nature Conservancy. Sept./Oct. 1993, page 10
  2. Time Line for the Endangered Red Wolf, provided by the US Fish and Wildlife Service.
  3. Narrative Summary of Red Wolf Reestablishment Program Fish and Wildlife Service. February 28, 1997
  4. Smokies Homecoming. Doug Markham. Defenders. Fall 1993.
  5. The Worst Environmental Congress Ever
  6. Red Wolf Showdown. Audubon. March-April, 1995. Page 22-23.
  7. Restoring the Red Wolves to the Francis Marion Forest. The Lunz Letter. February 1997.
  8. Return of the Red Wolf Nature Conservancy Sept./Oct. 1993, page 12
  9. Tourism Officials Agree, Wolves Draw Visitors In. The Coastland Times. March 30, 1997.
  10. Reintroduced Wolves Face Little Opposition and Boost Tourism in East, Cornell Survey Finds. The Coastland Times. March 25, 1997.
  11. Survey Shows Support. Red Wolf Newsletter. Summer/Fall 1995. Page 2.
  12. Majority Backs Wolves. Defenders. Spring 1995. Page 15.
  13. Hyde County's Wolf War. Defender. Spring 1995. Page 14.
  14. The Endangered Red Wolf. Brochure of the US Fish and Wildlife Service
  15. Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge. RedWolf/RedWolfSummarydata.html
  16. Red Wolf Pups Vanish in Smokies. Davis, Marti. The Knoxville News-Sentinel.
  17. Brief History of the Red Wolf.
  18. Back to Nature. Radetsky, Peter. Discover. July 1993. pages 34-42.
  19. A Song for the Smokies. DeBlieu, Jan. American Way. Pages 66-72, 103-106
  20. Summary of the Red Wolf Reintroduction Project in Northeastern North Carolina. US Fish And Wildlife Publication.

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