The red wolf is critically endangered and is one of two species of wolves in the world. The red wolf is one of the world’s most endangered wild canids. 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. The animal was declared extinct in 1980. Fortunately, the US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) started a captive breeding program with 14 red wolves discovered near Texas and Louisiana in the 1970s. A small population of these wolves was released in North Carolina. This population, the only known wild red wolves in the world, is estimated at a mere 40.
There are over 200 red wolves in captive breeding programs across the country. The FWS will continue to protect these captive animals and work to grow the wild red wolf population in the hope of removing the animal from the endangered species list.
Red wolves look like large coyotes and are long-legged and square. Their hearing and vision are keen, necessary for being nocturnal predators, and the sense of smell is excellent. Red wolves are between 4.5-5.5 feet long and weigh between 50 and 80 pounds. Their height is 26 inches at the shoulder.
Red wolves are cinnamon in color with black-tipped guard hairs. The ears are usually red and the tail-tip black. The summer coat is more reddish than the dense winter coat. In all seasons, the eyebrows and lips are cream. The summer coat is short and coarse, and during winter the coat doubles in length and is soft.
Red wolves live approximately 7 years in the wild and up to 15 years in captivity.
Red wolves originally occupied eastern North America, from the Gulf Coast into southern Ontario, Canada. They became extinct in the wild in 1980. Red wolves are now in a captive breeding-and-release program. The wild release area is in eastern North Carolina where there is low human density, wetland soil and distance from roads, as these are important habitat features. The area is on a peninsula between Albemarle and Pamlico Sounds.
Albemarle Sound is a large estuary located at the confluence of a group of rivers, including the Chowan and Roanoke. It is separated from the Atlantic Ocean by the Currituck Banks, a barrier peninsula upon which the town of Kitty Hawk is located, at the eastern edge of the sound, and part of the greater Outer Banks region. Roanoke Island is situated at the southeastern corner of the sound, where it connects to Pamlico Sound. Much of the water in the Albemarle Sound is brackish or fresh, as opposed to the saltwater of the ocean, as a result of river water pouring into the sound.
The red wolf’s diet in the wild consists of rabbits, squirrels, fawns, birds, insects and reptiles. The red wolf is an opportunistic feeder and can travel up to 20 miles a day or more to find food, which can be consumed at a rate of two to five pounds daily
Red wolves seldom form large packs. Mother and pups hunt together. When the pups are young the father will hunt with his mate and pups. Unlike gray wolves, they are much less likely to pursue adult deer. Red wolves seldom howl. When they do, it is often more reminiscent of coyote chortling. The young, especially, do a lot of singing and chortling.
Red wolves mate for life. Gestation, as in all of genus Canis, is about 62 days. They mate once a year in February. Pups are typically born in April or May in well-hidden dens that may be located in hollow trees, stream banks and sand knolls. Dens have also been found in holes dug in the ground near downed logs or forest debris piles. Fewer than half of wolf pups born in the wild survive to adulthood. Survival rates are affected by disease, malnutrition and predation.
Usually 4 altricial pups are born, the eyes opening after about 2 weeks. Pups begin to take partially digested food at about 3 weeks, regurgitated by both parents. They begin joining the hunt at about 5 months, just after their deciduous canines drop out and the permanent ones begin to come in. They disperse before the next litter is born and are mature in 2 to 3 years.
Red wolves are social animals that live in close-knit packs. Typical packs consist of five to eight animals, including a breeding adult pair and their offspring of different years. Older offspring will often assist the breeding pair in pup rearing. Almost all offspring between one and two years of age will leave the pack to form their own pack.
Threats to the red wolf are primarily human-caused mortality, gunshots, vehicle strikes, and habitat fragmentation from increasing development. Coyotes are also a threat as they directly compete with wolves for resources, as well as introduce diseases, and dilute wolf genetic lines through hybridization. This is particularly true when a pack has lost one of the adults from the breeding pair close to mating season.
More animals are needed in captivity to secure the species’ survival and to support any wild population, including the current population in North Carolina.