CANIS RUFUS: Red Wolf Ecology and Recovery



Just like Romulus and Remus

All right. I will admit I was not responsible for constructing Rome. Nor was I raised by a pack of wolves, but a simple encounter with a red wolf when I was a child did shape my life. 

When I was a child growing up in eastern Tennessee my parents took me to a wildlife park in the Smokey Mountains. I was a bit of an animal fanatic so I was eager to get up close to “wild” animals. There were fenced enclosures with whitetail deer and other animals. People were allowed to get much closer to the animals than they would today. There were fenced enclosures with whitetail deer and other animals. Try as I may, the only animals I can remember are the wolves. 

A large fenced enclosure housed a few red wolves. There were bleachers near the fence for people to sit and listen to a biologist to give a talk. There were no presentations that day however. I circled the parameter of the fence multiple times hoping to get closer to the figures resting in the shade of the brush but there was nothing I could do to bring them out of hiding so that I could see them.

Our group moved on so I reluctantly left the wolves. I walked only a little further down the trail when I noticed a small tortoise crossing the path. I examined him for a while, excited to have my hands on another living animal. The gears in my eight year old head started turning. I slipped away from our group with my little friend and headed back to the wolves. The fact that I had come alone and seemed so intent on getting to their fence sparked their interest, not enough for them to get up, but just enough to cause them to raise their heads and ears. I am not proud of what I am about to tell you and it is not for the faint of heart. I took the tortoise and pitched it over the fence.

Without any real sense of urgency, one of the wolves stood up from behind the log where she had been napping and sauntered my way. I will never forget the way she casually trotted directly toward me with our gazes locked. When she reached the meat offering I had brought she was but a few feet from me. We were alone. She determined that it was a suitable sacrifice when the tortoise began to flee so she snatched it up, took one more look at me and trotted back to her log. She commenced to gnaw on the shell and I could hear the splintering of the reptilian home.  

I ran back to my family in awe of what had transpired. I had not touched the wolf but I had touched something that she had touched. I had given her a gift and she had received it.


Ecology is, by definition, the interaction of diverse organisms. Many are aware of the fact that predators need healthy environments to thrive in. What is not so well understood is how much an ecosystem needs predators in order to become and remain a healthy ecosystem.

The ecology of the red wolf includes its relationship with other canids and with the humans trying to manage their recovery. In this paper we will explore the management strategies humans are taking to save this species from extinction, its habitat needs, and inter species interaction between the red wolf and other New World canids. 

New World Canids

The Natural History of New World Canids

Many scientist believe that The eastern wolf (today known as the algonquin and red wolves) have been a separate and distinct species from the larger gray wolf (canis lupus) for more than one million years (Wilson et al. 2000) Then, it is surmised, that the coyote diverged from the Eastern Wolf between 150,000 and 300,000 years ago. Modern histocompatibility complex genetics data adds much credence to this hypothesis (Hedrick et al. 2000, 2002, 2004), showing greater similarity between the eastern wolf species to the coyote than with the gray wolf.

With the exception of humans, the red wolf has remained the top predator throughout its range since that time (U.S.F.W.S. 2007). Just what that historic range actually was has been a subject of great consideration in recent years. For example, in 1979 Nowak set their range as extending from Texas to Florida, and up to the Ohio River Valley.  This is universally excepted. Nowak has revisited his findings twice since then (1995, 2002) and has extended the proposed historic range of the red wolf to include the entirety of the Appalachian range into Southeast Canada. Wilson added further credence to this theory by running DNA analysis on New England museum samples labeled as wolves taken in the 1800’s. His findings show that the wolves of New England contained New World DNA, not Old World (gray wolf) DNA (Wilson et al. 2003)

Aside from the morphological distinctions, scientist currently use a 340 mtDNA base pair strand as their red wolf marker, showing sequence not found in other wild or domestic canids. This region shows only a 4 to 34 base pair distinction between red wolves and their new world brother, the coyote (Adams 2002; Adams et al. 2003). This has led some to question the breed status of Canis rufus, claiming that it is a hybrid between the eastern wolf (Canis lycaon) and the western coyote (Canis latrans). Some argue that it is difficult to determine where one species ends and another begins due to their ability to interbreed. 

While there may be some debate as to taxonomic name, origin and management, there is a strong consensus amongst leading wolf biologists that the red wolf is a historically distinct entity worthy of protection under the U.S. endangered species act (USFWS 2007).

Back from the Brink

Canis rufus was first described by Audubon and Bachman in 1851. Since that time they have been systematically extirpated from the American landscape by hunting, poisoning and loss or fragmentation of habitat until they were functionally extinct in the wild by 1980 (USFWS 1984, 1993). Thankfully, seventeen red wolves were captured from the wild in the late 70’s and a captive breeding program was set in motion (USFWS 1990). 

The red wolf has maintained a 5C recovery status with the USFWS as an endangered species under the Endangered Species act. 5C indicates a species with a high degree of threat and a low potential for recovery (USFWS 2007).

The red wolf Recovery program is one of the oldest in the nations history. While many great hurdles have been overcome, the mission has also suffered many setbacks.

Perhaps the most exciting thing about what the biologists have accomplished is the number of red wolves that there are today. The number of red wolves in the world has risen in the last 30 years from 17 to over 300 (USFWS 2007). 

The current recovery plan for the species has been in place for almost 20 years. In part, the plan calls for the establishment of at least 30 breeding facilities across the US containing 330 wolves and at least three wild red wolf populations containing at least 220 wolves. There is currently 208 red wolves in approximately 40 breeding facilities and there is an estimated 100 plus wolves in one wild population on the Albemarle Peninsula in North Carolina (USFWS 2007).


While great progress has been made in the captive breeding program, both wild populations, or NEPs (Nonessential Experimental Populations: a designation which allows managers and land owners more flexibility by treating the population as threatened rather than endangered), have suffered great losses.

The first of which, The Great Smokey Mountain National Park NEP was established in 1991. According to Henry (1998) there was such a poor pup survival because of the domestic dog disease, parvovirus, that the USFWS discontinued the NEP in 1998 and moved the remaining wolves to their second reintroduction site. 

The second and only remaining NEP was established in 1998 (the year the Smokey Mountian NEP was discontinued) on the Albemarle Peninsula in North Carolina. The USFWS and it’s partners have done an exceptional job establishing a population of more than 100 red wolves on the peninsula. The integrity of the entire population seemed threatened, however, by an invasion of its nearest canid brother, the coyote, in the early 1990s. 

Coyote: Friend of Foe?

 Coyotes have shown that they avoid inbreeding but that they will, reluctantly, hybridize with other New World canids (Meir 1995) when breeding options are minimal. Interestingly enough, they have not hybridized with gray wolves where their ranges are shared (such as in Yellowstone and Alaska) but both of the other New World canids (Canis lycaon and Canis rufus) have accepted them as mates. This as further credence to the theory that the coyote, eastern and red wolves evolved separately from the Old World gray wolves. 

The eastward immigration of coyotes finally reached northeastern North Carolina in the early 1990’s (USFWS 2007). There was at least one hybrid litter born on the peninsula. Data indicates that most of the hybrid litters could be traced to a single cross breeding incident. While hybridization is a natural process for many species of fauna (Smith 2003) the gene introgression was seen as a threat to the integrity of the entire wild population.

USFWS felt that quick action needed to be taken. They began DNA testing new litters at the den sites. Hybrid pups were euthanized. Sadly, due to the primitive nature of their DNA techniques some red wolf cubs were mistakenly culled in the process (USFWS 2007). Adult hybrids were sterilized and strategically placed on the outskirts of red wolf habitat as “place holders,” creating a buffer between the wolves and coyotes. These sterile hybrids remained in place until their range was needed by the wolves. Coyotes were then either displaced by the wolves or by the biologists (Kelly 2000). Another presumed victory for the Service. This management strategy will continue until the coyote influence on the red wolf population on the peninsula is reduced to the biologically acceptable 1% (Hedrick 2002).

 Bottle Necks and Founder Effects

A great obstacle yet to be confronted by the USFWS is that of inbreeding coefficients. It has been already noted in this paper that the red wolf population was reduced to only seventeen animals. We do not know what relation these wolves may have had to each other prior to their capture. Of these seventeen, only fourteen were used in the captive breeding program. Therefore all modern red wolves are descended from this bottle neck of founders and have lost almost 11% of the foundation stock’s genetic diversity (Garelle et al. 2006). While obvious inbreedings are avoided and great care is taken to ensure optimum genetic variance, the coefficient of inbreeding (of COI) due to the founder effect continues to mount.

Looking to the Future

While there are great problems to be addressed, science is presenting new possibilities almost daily for the preservation of this American treasure. 

According to the USFWS 5 year status review published in 2007, the current recovery plan has remained unchanged since the 1990’s. Although future actions are suggested in this 58 page report, the official recommendation at the conclusion of the document (the portion read on the federal level) reads, “No change is needed” (USFWS 2007, page 58). With the many developments concerning the red wolf’s historic range and the mounting consensus concerning their relation to the eastern or algonquin wolf, perhaps new goals and directions are in order.


At Least Three Wild Populations? 

While there is much success to celebrate on the Albamarle Peninsula, recent figures by Stoskopf (2007 in litt.), Murray (2007 in litt.), and Knowlton (2007 in litt.) indicate that the region has reached its red wolf carrying capacity. The failure at the Smokey Mountain National Park was aborted more than a decade ago. There remains in that park suitable habitat for reintroduction and immunizing the introduced red wolf population would be a relatively easy task.

5 Year Review

Some of the “suggested future actions’ in the 5 Year Status Review (USFWS 2007) hold great promise for the survival of the red wolf and must be pursued with haste. Namely: 

  • The need for more breeding facilities, 
  • New wild restoration sites, and 
  • An investigation of the implications of their relationship to the Algonquin Wolf of Eastern Canada. 


While hybridization could compromise the species, managed hybridization could be a tool to address many of the genetic defects that are surfacing (Waddell 2007) as it has for the Florida panther (Creel 2006). In other words, the judicious use of Canis lycaon and Canis latrans hybridization to deepen the gene pool of the Canis rufus should be explored in depth with haste.

If Wilson et al. (2000, 2003) is correct in asserting that the red and algonquin wolf are similar enough genetically to be considered one species, this would open up many options for addressing the genetic bottle neck of the species.

 The USFWS recommendation that more New England Canid relation studies are encouraged (USFWS 2007) should be made actionable. The vast expanses of forests in northern New England forests would be ideal for a NEP of red wolves with integrated Canis lycaon genetics. This would help to bridge the ecological gap created artificially by the colonial extirpation of the eastern New World wolves along their Appalachian corridor. 


I could do no better than to conclude this report with a quote from the leading Canadian wolf biologists:

“Our findings (but cf., Nowak 2002) suggest that the following changes should be considered in the formal US designations and programs: 1) the northeastern United States should be excluded from the range of C. lupus in the endangered species listing, and the range of the red wolf (C. rufus or C. lycaon) should be extended into that area; 2) part of the northeastern United States should be considered for any new red wolf reintroductions; and 3) eastern coyotes and red wolves in the United States should be allowed to hybridize as they are naturally doing along the Algonquin– Frontenac interface in Ontario.” (Wilson, Grewal, Mallory, & White 2009)


2 Responses so far.

  1. admin says:
    There were some charts, maps and diagrams that accompanied this research paper. If my readers would benefit from the addition of distribution maps, etc, let me know.
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