Saving Red Wolves: The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the AZA Red Wolf SSP

By Maymie Higgins

red wolf tree

It was becoming cooler and darker inside the hollow tree trunk.  In spite of their restless wills, the five pups were sleeping soundly after nursing themselves to a sleep-inducing level of fullness. The mother shifted her weight, bent her long, delicate legs and raised just enough to peer out of the trunk opening.  Her mate should be returning soon.  He left to hunt just as the sun had fallen below the tree line.  She heard the snap of twigs from behind and quickly slipped back into the darkness.  From there she saw four paws appear at the opening.  She smelled rabbit and wasted no time in sharing the meal with her mate because nursing requires much energy.  She had hesitated in pairing up with this mate because he had an unusual hide around his neck.  But he turned out to be a good choice with excellent hunting and parenting skills.  In fact, she could only remember birthing three pups but somehow yesterday, there were five pups.  She immediately began caring for the new pups as if they had always been there, not worrying about her and her mate’s ability to feed and rear two more.  As the pair finished their meal, the eruption of coyote howls echoed across Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge, the only place in the entire world where red wolves (Canis rufus) exist in the wild.


The red wolf was once common throughout the eastern and south central United States but their numbers declined in the early 20th century because of intensive predator control programs and loss of habitat.  Now they are one of the most endangered canids in the world. There are approximately 300 red wolves alive today, and only about 100 of them are at Alligator River.  The rest are in captivity in zoos and other captive breeding facilities throughout the United States.  All red wolves alive today are descended from a founding population of 14, from the total remaining 17 wild red wolves captured in 1980 along the Gulf coast in Texas and Louisiana.  Red wolves were then declared extinct in the wild.  A breeding program at Point Defiance Zoo had already begun in 1977 but the plan was revised in 1984 and approval was received from the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) for a Red Wolf Species Survival Plan (SSP).  During the same year, Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge was established on land in northeastern North Carolina.  In 1987, experimental release of wolves took place and the first wild litter was born in 1988.  Other propagation locations and projects on several islands and in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park were initiated and all later ended by 2005.  All wild wolves in those locations were captured and placed in the 43 breeding zoos and facilities that participate in the AZA SSP.  The Red Wolf Recovery Program is supervised under the jurisdiction of the United States Fish and Wildlife Service.  Red wolves have been listed under the Endangered Species Act since 1967.  You can read more about the recovery program here

As an intern at the North Carolina Zoological Park, I briefly had the privilege of working with captive red wolves.  At that time, there were two red wolves, a brother and sister, that were on exhibit for zoo visitors. The remaining nine red wolves were off-exhibit in several large fenced areas in about a half acre of wooded area, somewhat separated from the typical noise and activity of zoo operations and visitors.  While it is safe for zoo staff to go into the wolf enclosures, doing so is usually limited to no more than three times/week by only one person at a time.  There is no engagement of the wolves, either directly or indirectly.   Wolves want nothing to do with humans and, as is true for many animals, will go away without harming a human if given sufficient “flight distance”, which is the amount of space an animal needs between themselves and a predator to feel unthreatened.  It is important to preserve wild behaviors because the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service may choose any of the red wolves to be placed into the wild population, within reason.  Older red wolves or those who do not exhibit sufficient wild behaviors are not likely to be placed in the wild.  During my internship, a male red wolf was delivered to the zoo for veterinary care after living in the wild for many years.  He was older and had some health problems, which the zoo treated successfully.  He was retired from the wild at the very zoo in which he was born.

At Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge, management of the wild population includes monitoring more than 70 radio-collared wolves as well as tracking and monitoring more than 60 sterilized coyotes (Canis latrans) referred to as placeholders.  Though coyotes and red wolves are two distinct species, they can interbreed and produce fertile offspring, known as wolf/coyote hybrids.  Therefore, to preserve pure red wolf DNA when coyote territory expanded into the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge, biologists began capturing, sterilizing and then releasing them back where they were captured.  Because coyotes are territorial, even when sterile, they continue to occupy the same territory as before but can no longer interbreed with wolves. This prevents new, fertile coyotes from moving into the territory and breeding with wolves.  There are studies suggesting that all red wolves today are hybrids, but this is still in debate and under scientific scrutiny.  Red wolves are only slightly larger than coyotes and are often mistaken for coyotes, which has resulted in several deaths by gunshot, even of collared wolves in the protected refuge.


Another part of wild population management has included successfully placing captive born pups with wild born litters of the same age.  These pups have gone on to become adult wolves with wild born litters of their own, helping to maintain genetic diversity and supplement the wild population.  The North Carolina Zoological Park also has a history of providing pups to wild born litters.

The red wolf story is just one of many examples of how biologists, veterinarians, keepers and aquarists at zoos and aquariums throughout the world are collaborating with governmental organizations, non-governmental organizations and even corporations to conserve and preserve the natural world.  It is also a story of how challenging it can be to save a widely persecuted species in spite of the greatest available legal protection.  October 13-19 is Wolf Awareness Week and this will likely be a year of historical events that determine the plight of all wolf species forever.  The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposed to remove another wolf species, the gray wolf (Canis lupus), from the list of threatened and endangered species, which would shift management of wild populations to the state level.  Citizens may submit their comments about the delisting until December 17, 2013 at 11:59 pm at!documentDetail;D=FWS-HQ-ES-2013-0073-30560

Red wolves have been out of their historical range for so long, it is impossible to know for certain all the ways their absence has adversely affected the ecosystem.  However, reintroduction of gray wolves in the northwestern U.S. has yielded documented ecosystem benefits such as those observed in Yellowstone National Park.  This includes better regulation of prey numbers and movement (elk and deer), allowance of stream bank habitats to recover (elk forage and destroy less vegetation along the water’s edge because they are more vulnerable to wolves there), reduction of coyotes (gray wolves will kill coyotes in their territory) and increased food for scavengers (leftovers from a hunt).  Gray wolf recovery also required the assistance of zoos through an AZA SSP and, for now, is a positive story of the environment.  Even with the current debate I believe wolf advocates, who are a passionate and determined group, are going to successfully preserve these keystone species for a long time.

All photos obtained from the United States Fish and Wildlife Service website

12 thoughts on “Saving Red Wolves: The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the AZA Red Wolf SSP

  1. Great, informative piece! While there are definitely encouraging developments, it is clear that there is still much work to be done to protect the wild wolf populations.

  2. Thank you for this informative piece. I really hope the Red Wolf can be saved from extinction. The documentary, True Wolf, chronicles the work of an ambassador wolf, Koani, whose life spanned the reintroduction of the Gray Wolf in the Yellowstone ecosystem. It is truly fascinating and discouraging to watch how much human drama plays a part in a wild species who is just doing what they do naturally. The film has been in theaters for over a year and will be out on Vimeo On Demand starting Oct 23. Hoping that all who see it will find a more balanced view of this maligned species.

    • Pam, thank you for sharing information about True Wolf. I actually don’t know anything about Koani and look forward to learning about her life.

  3. The deadline for comments on the delisting of wolves has been extended to December 17. Here’s the link to let YOUR government know that wolves can never afford to be without the maximum available legal protection and will face certain extinction without it. All wolves should be forever protected under the Endangered Species Act for both their protection and for protection of the ecosystems that benefit from the presence of wolves.!documentDetail;D=FWS-HQ-ES-2013-0073-30560

  4. Pingback: Chicago coyotes faithful to their mates | Dear Kitty. Some blog


  6. Pingback: The Only Good Wolf is a Live Wolf | The Whisker Chronicles

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