Top Ten Frequently Asked Questions about Red Wolves

Why reintroduce red wolves?
The essential reasons are to prevent extinction of the species and to restore the ecosystems in which red wolves once occurred. It is important to save all members of an ecosystem, including predators, if we intend to preserve the environment and be good stewards of the land. Predators maintain the balance and health of ecosystems by controlling over-populations of prey species and removing unhealthy animals. The Act requires recovery plans for endangered species. The recovery population goal in the Red Wolf Recovery Plan is 550 (at least three wild populations totaling 220 and 330 in captivity at 30 or more facilities). Lessons learned in the Red Wolf Recovery Program have served, and will continue to serve, as a template for recovery of other species whose only hope for survival is reintroduction.

What do red wolves look like?
Red wolves are mostly brown and buff colored with some black along their backs; there is sometimes a reddish color behind their ears, on their muzzle, and toward the backs of their legs. Red wolves are intermediate in size between gray wolves and coyotes. The average adult female red wolf weighs 52 pounds and the average adult male weighs 61 pounds. Red wolves have tall, pointed ears, long legs, and large feet, similar to the domestic German shepherd. Adult red wolves stand about 26 inches at the shoulder and are about 4 feet long from the tip of the nose to the end of the tail.

Since coyotes exist in both red wolf reintroduction areas (northeastern North Carolina and eastern Tennessee), it is important for people to know the physical differences between the two species. Adult coyotes weigh about one-half to two-thirds as much as red wolves and stand approximately 4 inches shorter; coyotes are much less massive through the head, chest, legs, and feet.

Did red wolves ever exist in North Carolina and Tennessee?
Based on fossil and archaeological evidence, the original red wolf range extended throughout the Southeast, from the Atlantic and Gulf Coasts, north to the Ohio River valley and central Pennsylvania, and west to central Texas and southeastern Missouri. At least one archaeological specimen has been found in North Carolina. In addition, court records from eastern North Carolina document that wolf bounties were paid from 1768 to 1789.

Do red wolves hybridize with coyotes?
Red wolves, gray wolves, domestic dogs, and coyotes are capable of interbreeding and producing fertile offspring. Social structures and territoriality usually prevent such interbreeding. Due to the widespread persecution of predators and the destruction of suitable habitat, by the 1960s the number of red wolves was dwindling, and coyotes had migrated into the Southeast.

When the few remaining red wolves were unable to find mates of their own species hybridization with more abundant coyotes did occur. This hybridization is generally accepted as the final factor that resulted in the near extinction of the red wolf.

In reintroductions, instances of red wolves breeding with coyotes have occurred that involved lone red wolves that did not have access to potential red wolf mates. Similar breedings between gray wolves and coyotes also occur. It is believed that limited interbreeding between wolves and coyotes on the fringes of wolf populations is a natural occurrence that does not affect the integrity of either species. However, where wolf populations are small and isolated, as in restorations, intensive management may be needed to ensure that availability of mates of their own species. We conclude that, given a choice, red wolves prefer red wolves as mates.

How many red wolves are there?
Red wolf numbers continually change due to births and deaths. At the end of August 1997, the total population was 240 to 317. Wild populations numbered 54 to 129, with 45 to 92 of these animals occurring in eastern North Carolina and the other 9 to 37 occurring in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in eastern Tennessee. Another 11 to 13 red wolves existed on three island propagation sites off the Atlantic and Gulf Coasts. The remaining 175 red wolves were located at 35 captive-breeding facilities involving 33 cooperators.

How does the Service keep track of the wolves?
Each red wolf that is captured or released is outfitted with a radio transmitter that emits pulse signals or "beeps" that biologists can read with a radio receiver. These signals enable the biologists to locate the wolves. The frequency of locations varies from once or twice daily to once a week, depending on specific circumstances.

Are red wolves a threat to humans?
There have been no documented cases of healthy wild red wolves attacking humans in North America, despite 500 years of historical coexistence. Wild red wolves are shy and usually stay away from humans and human activities.

However, wolves are capable of attacking and injuring humans, and such encounters with Native Americans may have occurred before the use of modern weapons and the resulting fear of man by wolves. Although unlikely to be a threat to humans, red wolves, and all wildlife, should not be approached in order to avoid possible injury to the animal or the people involved.

What do red wolves eat?
Although the exact diet of red wolves is difficult to determine and varies depending on available prey, a study of approximately 2,200 scats (feces) of wild red wolves from northeastern North Carolina estimated that their diet consisted of about 50 percent white-tailed deer, 30 percent raccoons, and 20 percent small mammals, such as rabbits, rodents, and nutria. Nonmammalian prey, domestic pets, and livestock were uncommon as prey items, but they did occur in very low numbers (less than 2 percent). A red wolf consumes about two to five pounds of food per day.

Do red wolves live and/or hunt in packs?
A "pack" is simply defined as an extended family unit, which is the primary social structure of both red and gray wolves. A typical red wolf pack consists of five to eight animals-an "alpha" or breeding adult pair and offspring of different years. The alpha wolves are the only breeders in the pack; wolves breed once a year.

Wolf packs have specific home ranges that they actively defend against other canids, including wolves. The pack is a very closely knit group; in fact, older offspring assist the alpha pair with den attendance and pup-rearing. Almost all offspring between 1 and 3 years of age will leave the pack or "disperse."

Since the red wolf's diet does not consist of large ungulates, such as elk, bison, or moose, group or pack hunting is probably not necessary. Most hunting by red wolves is believed to be done individually or in pairs.

What does a red wolf on private land mean to the landowner?
All wild red wolves are classified as experimental nonessential under the Act. This designation is intended to minimize effects on individual landowner rights or lawful activities, such as farming, logging, hunting, trapping, or livestock operations. In fact, critical habitat cannot be legally established for experimental nonessential species. In the case of livestock or domestic pet depredation, relaxed regulations were passed in April of 1995 allowing landowners to take (kill) red wolves while depredation is occurring, provided that freshly wounded livestock or pets are evident.

There are also mechanisms for landowners to be paid if they choose to become involved with red wolf recovery or if they suffer depredations on their livestock or pets. Red wolves generate benefits for landowners by preying on species such as deer, raccoons, and nutria that can be pests on farms. Additionally, the presence of a pack of red wolves is likely to limit the distribution of coyotes in that area.

Private lands are an integral component of the Red Wolf Recovery Program. In eastern North Carolina, private lands provide only about 35 percent of the available habitat but support over 65 percent of the red wolf population. While it is clear that private lands are crucial to this and other endangered species programs, the challenge is to find ways to make it work in a manner that is expedient and fair to all.