Captive Breeding and Reintroduction of the Red Wolf
The red wolf (Canis rufus) is a canid native to North America that is larger than a coyote but not quite as large as the closely related grey wolf. They have a long course coat that is reddish behind their ears and along their neck and legs with black running along their backs. They stand about 26 inches at the shoulders, and they can weigh 45 to 80 pounds. They function socially in what’s known as a pack which consists of an adult breeding pair, who often mates for life, and their offspring of different years. Their offspring will eventually reach a level of maturity and branch off to create their own pack. These creatures were once common throughout the eastern and south central United States, roaming all the way from Massachusetts to Texas. Today they are one of the world’s most endangered canids. Thanks to efforts being made by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, despite some obstacles and possible threats, the future of these beautiful animals is looking bright.
As a result of predator control programs and the degradation and alteration of the species natural habitat, the red wolf population was nearly diminished by the early 20th century. The red wolf was designated an endangered species in 1967. Soon after, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service began their efforts to conserve the species, because it is important to save all members of an ecosystem, including predators. In 1973, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service initiated efforts to locate and capture the remaining pure bred red wolves. There was a small group of 17 wolves located in the Louisiana and Texas coastal area. Of the 17 remaining wolves, 14 were captured and became the founders of the captive breeding program. From 1980 to 1987 the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service declared the red wolf to be extinct in the wild. Today there are more than 100 red wolves living wild in their natural habitat on Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge in Northeastern North Carolina, and there are over 200 being kept in captivity spread throughout the United States.
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Though the recovery program has shown some significant success, there were some initial worries of possible threats in regards to the breeding and reintroduction of red wolves. One of the first conflicts faced in the program was the first attempt of reintroduction into the wild. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service attempted to reintroduce red wolves into the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. There were 37 red wolves released. Of those 37 wolves, 26 died or were recaptured after wandering onto private land. There were also 28 wild born pups that biologists are unsure if any even survived the first year since they were not able to fit tracking collars them. Some carcasses were found showing possibilities of parasites and malnutrition. In 1998, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and National Park Service made a joint decision to end the effort to restore a wild population of red wolves in the Great Smoky Mountain National Park. Another of many worries was being able to maintain enough genetic diversity to sustain a healthy growth of the population. One way they’ve been able to ensure enough diversity is continuing captive breeding and planting pups, also known as fostering, in wild born dens. The mother wolf then adopts the captive bred pups as her own. The fostering method was attempted for the first time in the red wolf recovery program in 2002.
Another possible threat to maintaining genetic diversity and still remains a possible threat is the hybridization of red wolves and coyotes. When the efforts to reintroduce the red wolves into northeastern North Carolina coyotes weren’t as present in the region, but now they are quite prominent in the area. Needless to say, crossbreeding of red wolves and coyotes is a growing concern. In order to reduce the possibility of interbreeding, coyotes that in possible contact areas are being captured and sterilized. This prevents the growth of coyote population in the area and breeding with red wolves. Then there is human induced mortality, either accidental by vehicle or shooting, or illegal hunting. Recently, in August of 2012, North Carolina’s state Wildlife Resources Commission legalized the hunting of coyotes at night with the use of a spot light. Since this law has been passed there have been three identified accidental shootings of the protected red wolf. Wildlife and environmental groups are seeking a court order to remove the ruling in regards to the obvious similarities between red wolves and coyotes, especially at night, when visibility is low already. With any recovery program there will be obstacles, some are unavoidable, where others can be worked around, modified and hopefully overcome.
With the successes obvious and obstacles overcome, the program is still moving forward. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s red wolf recovery program has hopeful goals that are becoming more realistic every year. The first goal is to establish at least three red wolf populations within their historic range large enough to allow natural evolutionary processes to occur. Another is to maintain 80% – 90% genetic diversity over a course of 150 years. Then, of course, the overall goal is to eliminate their risk of extinction and remove them from the endangered species list. This would involve having approximately 220 red wolves in the wild population and 330 wolves in captivity.
In the last 50 years the red wolf has come a long way, from nearly becoming extinct to having over 100 wolves in the wild population and over 200 in captivity to preserve genetic diversity for continued growth. The red wolf recovery program has been the first and most successful carnivore reintroduction project in North America. Thanks to significant success with the red wolf recovery program is serving as model for other predator recovery programs worldwide. Predators are a vital part of the ecosystem and are just as important to be preserved as any other species. Hopefully, the red wolf will one day roam as it did throughout the eastern and south central United States.
“4th Quarter Report” U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 29 Oct. 2012
“About the Recovery Program”, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 29 Oct. 2012
“About the Red Wolf”, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 29 Oct. 2012
“History of Smoky Mountains Wolf Project” U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 8 Oct. 1998
“Red Wolf”. Anti Essays. 3 Dec. 2012
“Red Wolves on The Zoofiles”, Red Wolves on Alligator River, Unknown
“U.S. wildlife agency says. . .”, The Republic, 9 Nov. 2012 http://www.therepublic.com/view/story/a0ec73b5c6f441269772f9168bccd3f2/NC–Red-Wolves-Shot
The red wolf, once native to the eastern and south central U.S., was nearly extinct by 1960 due to predator control programs and the destruction of their natural habitat. Since then, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has initiated and effort to restore their population. 14 pure bred red wolves of remaining 17 were in the wild were captured for captive breeding, and the red wolf was declared extinct in the wild. After overcoming numerous obstacles they successfully reintroduced red wolves in the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge. Today there are more than 100 red wolves in the wild and more than 200 in captivity throughout the U.S. This is the first and most successful carnivore reintroduction in North America, which has made it a model for predator recovery programs worldwide. Hopefully, the program will continue to see progress and the red wolf will be able to be taken off the endangered species list.