The Red Wolves of North Carolina

Note:  The US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) is working on an environmental impact statement which will determine how the red wolf population and habitat will be managed going forward.  They are accepting public comments through July 24th, 2017.  The Red Wolf Coalition (RWC) prepared this guide to writing an effective letter.

On April 28th six red wolf pups were born at the Museum of Life and Science (Museum) in Durham, North Carolina.  Two did not survive, but the four remaining pups are now almost twelve-weeks-old.  They live in a woodland habitat with their parents, F1858 and M1784.

Red wolf pups
Photo Credit: Ryan Nordsven/USFWS

Ancestors of red wolves originally roamed the southeastern United States from Florida to Pennsylvania and as far west as Texas.  Cousins to the gray wolf, they have the same long legs and rounded ears, but are smaller and have a reddish tint to their black and gray coats.

In the wild they live in small family groups consisting of the adults and juveniles, one- to two-years-old, who help raise new pups.  They mostly hunt small mammals, rabbits, raccoons and the occasional deer.  But like other wolves in the U.S. their numbers dwindled dramatically in the 20th Century due to habitat loss and conflicts with humans.  They were listed as endangered in 1967 and became extinct in the wild in 1980.

The wolves at the Museum are part of a decades-long effort to restore the population.  In 1987 the first red wolves were released back into a portion of their native habitat in the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge.  Today there are less than 300 red wolves, most of them living in captivity with a small population of 40-50 in the wild.

It’s a familiar story.  Eleven years after the first red wolves were released in North Carolina, Mexican gray wolves were reintroduced in Arizona and New Mexico.  The Mexican wolf program was based, at least in part, on the red wolf program. Both populations of wolves face ongoing challenges in their recovery.  Advocates continue to fight to increase their numbers in the wild and to expand their access to more habitat.

Female 1287 at SSP site Museum Life and Science (Durham, NC).
Photo credit: B. Bartel/USFWS

I’ve followed red wolves from a distance for a couple of years, but when I read about the new pups on  RWC’s Facebook page I found myself engaged in their progress via “pupdates” posted on the Museum’s zoo keeper’s blog.  Complete with photos and videos, the posts provide a window into  the first weeks of a wolf pup’s life.

A few of the notes:  At two-weeks the pups’ coats were getting lighter in color and their eyes were beginning to open.  A week later Mom moved one of the pups (carrying it in her mouth) outside the den, but returned it later that day.  At four-weeks Dad brought them a knuckle bone to chew on.  At five-weeks they were more-widely exploring the enclosure, climbing up the cliff to another den site, sometimes sliding back down.  They were also beginning to eat solid food, regurgitated for them by Mom and Dad.  By six-weeks they all had teeth.  A week later they had learned to howl.

And then on a Monday morning in mid-June, three of the pups escaped, probably through an enlarged spot in the fence (just big enough for a seven-week old pup to squeeze through).  While it must have been a grand adventure for the pups (until they realized they couldn’t get back in), it had to be a heart-stopping event for the zoo keepers.  Luckily, the little rascals were still contained within the Museum’s perimeter fence.  Dad took it in stride and provided food for the pups at the fence line.  Two pups were recaptured within hours, but the third spent the night outside.  By noon the next day she was back in the enclosure with Mom, Dad and her three siblings.

Juvenile male red wolf waiting to be released
Photo Credit: R. Nordsven/USFWS

Updates are less frequent now as the pups put on weight and grow into their feet.

Next week they will be three-months-old and the USFWS will close the comment period on a proposed rule change that will impact the future of all red wolves.

Here’s hoping these pups and their parents have an opportunity to live out their lives in the wild, chasing rabbits and falling asleep with full stomachs under the stars.

Photos in this post are from the Red Wolves Flickr Track the Pack photostream.  To see F1858, M1784 and their pups check out the “pupdates“.  Many thanks to Sherry Samuels for her posts that have allowed the public to get to know this family of endangered red wolves!




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