How to save the red wolf from going extinct—for a second time

After decades of growth, the world’s last population of wild red wolves has plummeted. Can we get back on track and save this critically endangered species?

A male wolf named Apollo howls alongside his family at Reflection Riding Arboretum and Nature Center in Chattanooga, Tennessee. While he will likely never be released to the wild, the two male puppies he and his mate produced in 2021 may be candidates for release.

With a total population below 20 individuals, the world’s most endangered wolf lives only in a small area in and around the Alligator River and Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuges in eastern North Carolina.

Called “America’s wolf,” the red wolf (Canis rufus) is the only large predator whose historic range is found entirely within the United States, stretching from Texas to New England. But hunting gradually reduced its range, and it was declared extinct in the wild in 1980. In a ground-breaking successful experiment, eight captive wolves were released in 1987 into North Carolina, eventually growing into a population over 100. But poaching and management changes enacted by the Fish and Wildlife Service resulted in their numbers plummeting.

In the spring, conservationists celebrated a small bit of good news when four captive-born pups were placed into a den and successfully adopted by a wild red wolf mother. Meanwhile, another four adults were released into the wild. The pups are thought to be still alive and healthy. But the adults didn’t fare as well. In the months after release, three were struck by cars and killed, and the fourth was fatally shot on private land.

To boost the population after these deaths, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced in November that it plans to release nine adult red wolves into their recovery area this winter, land within and surrounding two wildlife refuges. The service also recently announced it would withdraw a 2018 proposal to shrink the red wolves’ protected area in North Carolina by 90 percent, after a lawsuit accused the agency of violating the Endangered Species Act.

Ron Sutherland of the Wildlands Network, who is based in the red wolf’s last stronghold of North Carolina, says it’s crucial that the feds have abandoned this wrong-headed proposal. And yet “the situation now is even more urgent than it was in 2018—this should launch the conservation community in the U.S. into crisis mode to save this species and bring it back from the brink.”

“We are committed to continuing to work with stakeholders in identifying ways to encourage and facilitate more effective coexistence between people and red wolves,” Emily Weller, red wolf recovery lead for the Fish and Wildlife Service, said in an email to National Geographic.

Here are the latest steps conservationists, researchers, and the federal government are taking to help rescue imperiled red wolves, such as releasing more wolves, better preparing them for the wild, trying to reduce vehicle collisions, and educating locals about this critically endangered species.

Born to be wild

In addition to the current small population in North Carolina, some 240 red wolves now live under human care at zoos and nature centers across the country. These facilities are part of the red wolf’s Species Survival Plan (SSP), which includes captive breeding to help rebuild their population and maintain genetic diversity. (Learn more: Eight red wolves released into wild provide hope for species.)

Chris Lasher, an animal management supervisor with the North Carolina Zoo in Asheboro and coordinator of the Red Wolf SSP, says that researchers would like to grow the captive population to a total of 400 individuals, an important step for preventing their extinction.

Next, more wolves need to be released, according to advocates like Sutherland and the Southern Environmental Law Center, whose lawsuit on behalf of conservation groups is what instigated the recent court-mandated releases. These releases need to continue, he says, “until the wild population hits 40 to 50 animals again and shows signs of taking off.” At this point, the red wolves can be best supported “by fostering captive pups into wild litters rather than releasing adult and adolescent wolves.”

This includes adults and pups. Perhaps the best way for red wolves to become savvy about their environment is from their parents, who ideally would pass on generations of learned wisdom about avoiding roads, how to hunt, and where to den. The process of pup fostering has a 100 percent success rate with red wolves and helps promote genetic diversity in the population.

It’s a difficult and time-sensitive procedure, however, and there must be wild litters on the landscape in order for it to be possible. 2019 and 2020 were the first years in the history of the red wolf recovery program—begun in 1987—in which no pups were born in the wild. But 2021’s foster effort appears to have been a success, and it remains to be seen if some of the pairs to be released this winter will produce more litters in the spring.

Better preparing wolves for release is another ongoing process. To do so, the animals are kept in large enclosures containing landscape features they would encounter in the wild. Roads are difficult to prepare them for—but keepers carefully experiment with potential forms of “negative enrichment,” which can be as simple as letting captive wolves associate car noises with semi-stressful experiences like health exams. In contrast, positive enrichment uses things like novel scents, natural objects, recorded animal sounds, hidden food and whole prey carcasses to provide mental and physical stimulation, says Regina Mossotti, Animal Director of the Endangered Wolf Center in Eureka, Missouri.

Feeding times are varied to prevent captive red wolves from associating humans with food. When possible they are also housed in family groups, Lasher says, “that would be similar to what they would experience in the wild.”

The Fish and Wildlife Service is also developing strategies to reduce vehicle strikes, working on things like motorist signage, wildlife crossings, road reflectors, and aversive conditioning—helping red wolves learn to avoid cars and roads, according to the agency. The Service plans also to modify the tracking collars of future red wolf releases to include orange reflective material, making them more visible on roadways at night, and more easily identifiable to hunters.

Like the ones slated for this winter, future releases will also take place outside the agricultural growing season, when there should be less traffic on nearby farm roads as well as on Highway 64, a main route to the Outer Banks, a popular vacation destination. Coordinating with the state’s Department of Transportation, the Fish and Wildlife Service purchased four portable electronic message boards to be used at various locations to urge people to drive with caution.

In November, the Senate passed, and President Biden signed, a $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill, which includes $350 million to help states fund the construction of wildlife crossings. The bill also calls for a nationwide study of wildlife-vehicle collisions and guidance on how to prevent or reduce them. Wildlife crossings go over or under existing roads and have been shown effective at reducing car-caused fatalities—but they are expensive. Newly designated federal funds may enable the state’s Department of Transportation to add some on Highway 64, which cuts through the refuge. Some have already been designed by the state.

Staying alive

One critical part of saving red wolves is helping people to understand they belong on the landscape—and pose no threat to human life. (Learn more: Red wolves are a unique species, authoritative study shows.)

Red wolves are legally protected under the Endangered Species Act, but a recent study published in the journal Biological Conservation found that a small minority of humans in their recovery area are the main factor driving this species toward extinction. Despite a majority of locals reporting positive impressions of red wolves, eleven percent of area hunters said that if they encountered a wolf, they would kill it. Among other conservation groups, the Wildlands Network has been working for years to teach the truth about red wolves—that they aren’t dangerous to humans, and don’t harm local wildlife resources

Federal agencies and conservation groups are hoping to work together through outreach programs, some of which have been hindered by pandemic restrictions. These include virtual information sessions, billboards and other publicity campaigns, as well as Prey for the Pack, a program in which local landowners are offered incentives in exchange for agreeing to create and maintain habitat beneficial for red wolves, and to allow red wolves on private property. The Fish and Wildlife Service now has around a thousand acres of privately owned land under agreements via Prey for the Pack, and is working to secure more, the agency said in an emailed statement.

The Fish and Wildlife Service recently assembled a team of experts to develop an updated recovery plan for the red wolf, which in large part will have to involve more successful reintroductions. The plan will also include research into other potential sites within the red wolf’s historic range—outside of eastern North Carolina—where a wild population could thrive.

The service also says they are recommitting to capturing and sterilizing coyotes to help red wolves hold territory and avoid hybridization—a successful measure that they had abandoned in recent years.

While red wolf recovery might seem in a sense to be “starting over,” as the nearly restored species once again teeters on the brink of extinction, biologists and experts have gained a wealth of insights over the past three decades about what must be done for the species to succeed.

Despite unfortunate missteps, setbacks, and challenges still ahead, Mossotti says it’s inspiring to see many people “working to help restore the species to its native range…and finding new reasons to hope.”

Jessica Suarez is a National Geographic Explorer, wildlife and conservation photographer and filmmaker based in Atlanta, Georgia. Follow her on Instagram.

The National Geographic Society, committed to illuminating and protecting the wonder of our world, has funded Suarez’s work. Learn more about the Society’s support of Explorers.

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