The red wolf, Canis rufus, is also known as the Florida black wolf and the Mississippi Valley wolf. The red wolf is one of two wolf species known to inhabit the United States, the other species is the gray wolf, Canis lupus. Before European settlement, red wolves are thought to have ranged from the mid-Atlantic South to modern-day Florida, inland along the Gulf Coast states into central Texas, and from there north and throughout the Ohio River valley (Beeland,9). Boitani and Mech, suggests today the only concentrated numbers of the red wolf is in the Albemarle Peninsula in North Carolina and approximately 40 left in the wild (274). There are over 200 hundred wolves in captive breeding programs across the country CITATION Red18 l 1033 (Red Wolf). The red wolf is listed as an endangered species under the Endangered Species Act and Critically Endangered by The International Union for Conservation of Nature, meaning that there is a greater than 50% chance the species will be extinct in 10 years.
Despite the name of red wolf, the coat of this wolf ranges from tawny to beige to black speckled. The only red colors are on the back of its ears and the tops of the muzzle, and this red is a muted red, like that of the American red squirrel and red-tailed hawks (Beeland, 4).
Beeland further explains the name “red wolf” is thought to have come from the people in central Texas that saw the wolf. In comparison to the gray wolf, the fur is not as thick due to living in warmer climates. The male red wolf ranges from fifty-five to eighty-five pounds and females weigh between forty-two to sixty-five pounds. This places the red wolf between the smaller coyote and the larger gray wolf on the weight scale. The height of the red wolf is up to 26 inches tall and a length of four feet.(4).
With so few of the red wolves in the wild it is difficult to determine what would be the preferred habitat for the wolves. The wolves are known to have previously inhabited the entire southeastern United States, so it would appear that the species is adaptable to many habitats. The location of the southeastern United States would suggest that the species prefer a moderate climate.
The red wolf was a keystone predator prior to the settlement of the United States by the Europeans. With the decline of red wolves in the wild, coyotes have taken their place in the food web. The red wolves that were reintroduced on the Albemarle Peninsula survive by eating raccoons, otters, muskrats, rabbits, squirrels, rats, birds, bullfrogs, mice, chickens, white-tailed deer, and nutria, a non-native species (Beeland,4). Red wolves will also consume berries if other resources have been depleted, but the red wolf is an omnivore. It is suggested the red wolf will consume two- five pounds of food daily CITATION Red18 l 1033 (Red Wolf).
The dominant male and female pair are solely able to reproduce within a pack. Other pack members assist in raising young and obtaining food for lactating females. CITATION Cso18 l 1033 (Csomos) Breeding season extends from January to March. The gestation period is 60-63 days, with average litters of 3-6 pups occurring in the spring. However, litters of up to 12 pups can occur. Both males and females participate in rearing the young in the den, as well as other pack members. The young are cared for, nursed, and shepherded through their first year of life. The female wolf becomes sexually mature at 1 year. (Animal Diversity.org)
Research conducted by Boitani and Mech suggests the range of red wolves is determined by the food available to the pack. Home range sizes averaged 35 square miles for individuals and 48 square miles for packs.It should be noted that these figures are based on the three packs, Milltail, Gator, and Airport, in the North Carolina refuge. There is not a large enough population size outside of the refuge area to determine a true range for this species in various environments. (281-282)
The life span of the red wolf in the wild is between 7 and 8 years and up to 15 years in captivity CITATION Red18 l 1033 (Red Wolf). As indicated by Boitani and Mech, the red wolf is a pack animal with one alpha male and alpha female per pack. The alpha male and alpha female are the only two that reproduce for the pack. All of the other members of the pack help care for the pups for first year of life. The pack competes in their environment with the coyote. This relationship would seem to put the two species at odds with each other but in many cases, the red wolf and the coyote may end up mating and creating a hybrid pack. This has caused numerous issues for the red wolf and will be explained in depth later in this paper.
The first species of the genus Canis arose during the late Miocene, the forerunner of all the wolves, coyotes and domestic dogs (Boitani and Mech, 239). The species then diverged into the gray wolf (C. Lupus), the red wolf (C. Rufus) and the coyote (C. Larans). The species of the red wolf is more closely related to the coyote than to the gray wolf. While the gray wolf dominated the northwestern half of the United States, the red wolf became the top canine predator in the southeastern part of the United States. The coyote originally shared the same territory as the gray wolf but as humans diminished the wolves’ population, the coyote has expanded to encompass the entire United States.
Native Americans view wolves as spiritually powerful animals, some tribes believed that the wolves were once men and considered them as brothers (Boitani and Mech, 291). Many tribes observed the hunting skills and bravery of the wolf and imitated the actions of the wolves to enhance their own hunting skills, such as pack hunting and separating herds to enhance the odds for a kill. This does not mean that the Native Americans did not kill wolves because they did. Native Americans killed wolves if they were competing with the wolves for the same food sources or if the wolf population was becoming too large. The Native Americans however did not fear the wolf and did not systematically kill the wolf to eliminate it from the landscape; they viewed the wolf as an equal species.
The true problems for the wolf began with the settlement of the United States by European settlers. European colonists brought a fear and hatred of the wolf based largely on Old World myth and folklore (Botani and Mech,293). This fear caused many wolves to be killed for no other reason than they were present in an area. Unlike the nomadic Native Americans, Europeans settled into areas and raised crops and livestock, along with hunting game for food. As more settlers moved into the area, the more game animals that were depleted. Wolves, faced with less traditional food sources, began to use the domesticated livestock of the settlers as a food source. The European settlers, seeing the wolves as competitors for game and aggressors towards their livestock, began to exterminate all wolves in their environment. This cycle continued from the first settlement in the United States to the conquering of the Western Frontier, and unfortunately still happens in today’s society.
In 1915, Congress established the federal Bureau of Biological Survey and its Division of Predator and Rodent Control (PARC). The mission for PARC was to eliminate wolves and other predators that threatened livestock, even from areas that were not near livestock. PARC, to generate and maintain funding, continued to perpetuate the myth of outlaw wolves that kills large numbers of livestock. This myth was enforced to the extent that many ranchers, to this day, still support the eradication of all predators (Boitani and Mech, 294).
Starting in 1949, the attitude towards wolves started to change and by the 1970’s environmental groups had started to embrace the conservation of the remaining wolves. In 1974, wolves were classified under the Endangered Species Act of 1973 as “endangered” in the contiguous United States. This eventually lead to the reintroduction of the gray wolf into the Yellowstone National Park and a captive breeding and reintroduction program of the red wolf (Boitani and Mech,294)
When the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) started to investigate the red wolf population, they discovered that the number of red wolves were extremely low and of those low numbers, many were hybrids. The hybrid breed was a combination of red wolves and coyotes. To preserve the species, the USFWS decided to capture red wolves for captive breeding. Captive breeding served two purposes, to protect the genetics of the species and to increase the number of red wolves (Boitani and Mech, 294).
The reintroduction of red wolves into the wild started on September 7, 1987, in the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge (ARNWR) in northeastern North Carolina. CITATION LDa03 l 1033 (Boitani) The introduction wolves were given an “experimental/nonessential” designation rather than an endangered status to encourage cooperation from those likely to be impacted from reintroduction (Boitani and Mech, 294). From the time of reintroduction to 1994, three distinct packs developed; Milltail pack, Gator pack, and the Airport pack. The diversity of the packs and the area they inhabit allow scientists to observe how the wolves adapt to prey and the environment to enhance knowledge about possible expansion of the reintroduction of wolves to other areas.
From the start of reintroduction up to 2007, the red wolf population in the wild floated around 120 in and around the ARNWR. The peak number of wolves was 131 in 2001 (Beeland, 27). The wolf population was showing signs of growth and expansion beyond the boundaries of the ARNWR. This expansion and interbreeding with coyotes is what started to cause issues.
Due to hybridization, the USFWS has halted the release of red wolves into the wild. USFWS claims that if the wolves are allowed to interbreed that the species will go extinct in the wild and captive reproduction would also be affected. The success of the program also caused issues with local farmers and ranchers claiming that red wolves were attacking livestock. Being that the red wolves of the ARNWR were labeled as “experimental”, the USFWS has allowed ranchers to shot the nuisance wolves. Federal laws and USFWS has recently allowed the hunting of any red wolves that are not on federal land. The combination of these acts has lowered the number of red wolves in the wild to approximately 40 (RedWolf)
In conclusion, the outlook for the Southeastern Red Wolf is bleak. Despite a successful reintroduction program, which has been used for other species, the red wolf became a victim of human interaction. The fears of the wolf from yesteryears, bloodthirsty killers of livestock and game, has again caused the government to abandon this species to extinction. The prediction by the Red Wolf Species Status Assessment suggests that if nothing is done that red wolves in the wild will go extinct within eight years (Kelly, Beyer and Phillips, 4). This will mean the only place we could see this magnificent animal will be in a cage at a zoo.
Animal diversity.org. Csomos, Mulheisen, M., Mulheisen, R. 2018. Web. 10
Beeland,T. The secret life of red wolves; the fight to save North America’s other
wolf. Chapell Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2013. print.
Boitani,L., Mech,D. Luigi. Wolves. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003.print.
Biological Diversity.org. Jong. 2018. Web. 27 June 2018.
“Red Wolf: Canis rufus.” Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. Web.
8 November 2018.
Kelly, B.T., Beyer, A. & Phillips, M.K. 2008. Canis rufus. The IUCN Red List of Threatened
Species 2008: e.T3747A10057394.