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Red Wolf (Canis rufus)




Endangered, Federal Register, March 11, 1967


A medium-sized, wild canid, the red wolf resembles the coyote but is larger and more robust. Its legs and ears are relatively longer than the coyote's. The red wolf's coloration is similar to that of the coyote, but the tawny element is more pronounced, and the pelage is usually somewhat coarser. This species is slightly smaller than the gray wolf (C. lupus) with a more slender and elongated head. It's pelage is shorter and coarser than in any race of lupus.

Prey studies in Texas and Louisiana, and more recent investigations in North Carolina, indicate that the diet of the red wolf will include whatever small to medium-sized mammals occur in abundance within the area in question. The last survivors in the wild in Texas and Louisiana fed primarily on nutria, rabbits, and carrion. Studies at Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge indicate not only a wide range of smaller mammals found on the refuge, but also a heavy dependance on white-tailed deer by red wolfs released into the wild. Historical accounts indicate that prey could also include young calves and other smaller domestic animals.


It is thought that red wolves mate for life. Breeding occurs in February and March, and pups are born in April and May. The average litter size is about 4.6 young. Our experiences, to date, indicate that without veterinary care, pup mortality in the wild may be significant.

Red wolves have been known to establish dens in hollow tree trunks, stream banks, abandoned dens of other animals, drain pipes, and culverts. They have been known to excavate dens in sand knolls in coastal areas. Dens found excavated in the coastal plain region of Texas and Louisiana averaged about 8 feet in length and had an entrance diameter of about 2 to 2.5 feet. Two dens have been documented during reintroductions. One was beneath a rock outcrop, and the other was under hay bales in a barn. Evidence suggests that the pups spend more time in beds located in areas of good cover than in the den, especially after they are 6 weeks of age.

Both males and females take part in rearing the young. Frequently, young of the previous year have been found in the vicinity of dens, but they do not appear to participate in the guarding, feeding, or training of the pups. Red wolves apparently exist as small family units (packs) of an adult pair and their young. The offspring disperse at about 6 months of age.


The red wolf was once found throughout the southeastern United States, from the Atlantic coast to central Texas and from the Gulf Coast to central Missouri and southern Illinois. Between the period of 19OO to 192O, red wolves were extirpated from most of the eastern portion of their range. A small number persisted in the wild in southeastern Texas and southwestern Louisiana until the late 197Os. By 198O, the species was determined to be extinct in the wild.

The present red wolf population of at least 249 animals exists primarily in captivity. Two hundred (2OO) animals are located in 22 captive breeding facilities in the United States. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has a major captive breeding project at Graham, Washington. This project is administered by contract with the Point Defiance Zoo in Tacoma, Washington. To date, there are 26 to 3O adult and yearling red wolves in the wild at the Fish and Wildlife Service's Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge in North Carolina; there are 16 animals in the wild at the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Tennessee. Also, there are seven animals in the wild on three islands managed as propagation projects.


The last red wolves were found in coastal prairie and marsh habitat because this was the last area in which the animals were allowed to remain. Any habitat area in the southeastern United States of sufficient size, which provides adequate food, water, and the basic cover requirement of heavy vegetation, should be suitable habitat for the red wolf. Telemetry studies indicate that red wolf home range requirements vary from about 25 to 5O square miles.


Expanding human populations and extensive land clearing initially affected the red wolf in two ways. First and probably foremost, these animals, along with other large predators, were killed in great numbers. Second, the extensive clearing of forest and hardwood river bottoms eliminated much of the prime red wolf habitat. The disappearance of the last red wolves from the wild is attributed to two factors: habitat changes which favored expansion of the historic coyote range into red wolf territory, and the local breakdown of red wolf social structure (caused by extensive trapping, poisoning, and shooting). The resulting situation of unmated red wolves in close proximity to coyotes apparently encouraged interbreeding. Competition with the more adaptable coyote and parasitic infections such as mange, hookworms, and heartworms, are of secondary importance in the final decline of the species.


A limited red wolf recovery program was first initiated in 1967. With the passage of the Endangered Species Act of 1973, an expanded program to save this species was initiated by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, in cooperation with the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries and the Texas Parks amd Wildlife Department. In November 1973, as part of the overall red wolf recovery program, the Fish and Wildlife Service entered into an agreement with the Metropolitan Park Board of Tacoma, Washington, to initiate a red wolf captive breeding program at the Point Defiance Zoo in Tacoma. 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 and/or distribution to selected captive breeding facilities. By late 1975, it was concluded that red wolves could not be maintained in their limited range in Texas and Louisiana. Therefore, recovery efforts were directed toward exploring the feasibility of using captive stock to reestablish red wolf populations in other areas of the species' historic range. With this decision, a final effort was made to capture as many of the remaining red wolves in the wild as possible.

To evaluate problems associated with a full-scale reintroduction program, an experimental reintroduction involving a single pair of wolves was conducted in December 1976 on Bulls Island, at the Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge in South Carolina. One of the wolves swam to the mainland 9 days after its release, and both animals were recaptured and returned to the captive breeding program. The acclimation period was extended to 6 months, and on January 5, 1978, another pair of red wolves was released onto Bull's Island. No problems were encountered, and the pair was allowed to remain free until the following October when they were recaptured and found to be in good health. The longer acclimation period was considered to be the primary reason for the success of this experiment.

After evaluating numerous potential reintroduction sites, an effort to establish a permanent population of red wolves in the wild was attempted from 1982 to 1984 on the Tennessee Valley Authority's Land Between the Lakes. This particular site, located in southwestern Kentucky and northwestern Tennessee, contains about 17O,OOO acres of land that is owned by the Federal Government. A reintroduction proposal was developed and coordinated with the State wildlife agencies of Kentucky and Tennessee. Public meetings were held in both States during November and December, 1983. Along with other unexpected problems, opposition by special interest groups ultimately prompted both of the State wildlife agencies to reject the proposal "as submitted."

A second attempt to establish a permanent population was initiated in 1987. The site was the then new Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge in Dare County, North Carolina. The North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission approved the project, but elected to remain neutral in the execution of the effort. After considerable contact with local individuals and organizations, and after four public meetings in the project area, four pairs of red wolves were taken from captivity and released during the fall of 1987. Some of these adult animals died within 6 months, but others survived. Pups, including second generation pups, have been born in the wild. At the moment there are 26 to 3O adult and yearling free-ranging red wolves and an unknown number of pups on the refuge. This project has proceeded beyond expectations. Public support continues to be positive. All of these originally released animals and their offspring are locally designated as experimental nonessential under provisions of Section 1O(j) of the Endangered Species Act. This project will be expanded west of Alligator River by releasing one to two family groups in 1993 into the Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge.

The recovery goal for this species is defined in the Red Wolf Recovery Plan as "at least three disjunct, wild populations." The recovery goal is further defined as approximately 22O animals in the wild and 33O in captivity. Each major reintroduction will require a minimum land area of about 225 square miles (144,OOO acres), and some potential reintroduction sites will have resident coyote populations. The ability of the red wolf to retain its genetic integrity in the presence of a coyote population, assuming otherwise favorable circumstances, is presently unknown. The final answer can only be determined by actual trial.

One trial was initiated in November 1991, when a pair of adult red wolves and their offspring were released into the Cades Cove section of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Tennessee. This release was a 1-year experiment to determine the feasibility of establishing a red wolf population in the south Appalachians. Results were favorable, and a permanent reintroduction was initiated by releasing two family groups into the park in the fall of 1992. Both adult pairs reproduced successfully in 1993, and the current population is 16 animals, including 7 pups. All released animals and offspring are designated as experimental nonessential.

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