World’s Only Wild Red Wolves in Jeopardy

America’s rarest wolf, the red wolf is a smaller and a more slender cousin of the gray wolf. The color for which it is named can be seen in the reddish cast to its fur.


Photo © USFWS

Shy and secretive, red wolves tend to form pair-bonds for life and have an average litter size of two to six pups.


Photo © USFWS

Survival of America’s Rarest Wolf at Stake

As few as 18 wild red wolves (Canis rufus)—the world’s only wild population of red wolves—live in a five county area on the Albemarle Peninsula of eastern North Carolina. According to population estimates by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the wild population of red wolves has declined by more than 70 percent from what it was five years ago when an estimated 100 red wolves lived within the same area.

On November 4, 2018, the Southern Environmental Law Center, on behalf of conservation groups, secured a court order declaring that the agency violated the law in gutting protections for the endangered wild red wolves in recent years.  The court also made permanent a previous September 29, 2016, order stopping the Service from capturing and killing, and authorizing private landowners to capture and kill wild red wolves not posing a threat to human safety or property.

Conservation groups brought the federal court action over the USFWS’s decision to allow red wolves that were not causing any problems to be shot and killed by private landowners, at the same time as it rolled back conservation measures that had helped red wolves grow from four pairs released in 1987, to over 100 animals in eastern North Carolina from 2002-2014. Since those management changes were made, the red wolf population has plummeted over the past four years.

In addition to the changes enacted in 2015, the USFWS proposed a rule on June 27, 2018, that would restrict wild red wolves to one National Wildlife Refuge and a bombing range in eastern North Carolina, while allowing the immediate killing of any wolves that live on or wander onto non-federal lands in what previously had been a designated five-county Red Wolf Recovery Area.  The USFWS proposal would reduce the recovery area by almost 90 percent.  The Service has halted progress on this proposed rule since the November 4, 2018 court order.

Nonetheless, the wild red wolf population remains in jeopardy as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has failed to resume previously-successful conservation measures, including releasing captive-born red wolves into the wild population and managing coyotes in the recovery area.

The Return of Red Wolves

North Carolina is home to the only wild population of red wolves in the world.  Red wolves bred in captivity were successfully reintroduced on a North Carolina peninsula within their native range in the late 1980’s after red wolves were declared extinct in the wild. Once common throughout the American Southeast, intensive predator control programs and loss of habitat decimated wild red wolf populations.


Listen to the red wolf chorus


Previous Court Action
In July 2013, the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission authorized coyote hunting both during the day and at night with artificial spotlights within the area designated for red wolf recovery.

The law center notified the NCWRC that it was in violation of the federal Endangered Species Act by allowing hunting of coyotes within the Red Wolf Recovery Area and the groups would file a federal enforcement action unless the commission took steps to protect the wolves. Subsequently, the parties agreed to a settlement to address shootings of wild red wolves, including banning coyote hunting by spotlight at night within the Red Wolf Recovery Area and requiring for the first time permitting and reporting for coyote hunting during the day within the five-county area. Since the settlement, the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission passed a resolution calling for red wolves to be declared extinct in the wild and demanding USFWS to remove red wolves from the wild.

Coyote Control
To prevent wild red wolves interbreeding with coyotes, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife in the past sterilized coyotes that held territories within and near red wolf habitat. Shooting sterilized coyotes undoes effective coyote population control efforts and further jeopardizes the native wild red wolf population.

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