AZA Species Survival Plan Profile

Red Wolves

By: Will Waddell

Developing recovery plans for the red wolf (Canis rufus) has been a lesson in making tough decisions, building partnerships and remaining flexible. Historically, red wolves ranged from central Texas to Florida and north to the Ohio Valley (Nowak 1972; Carley 1979). A combination of several factors, including substantial parasite infestation, predator control programs, and loss of habitat, contributed to a decrease in the red wolf population (Carley 1975; Nowak 1979). In 1967 the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) listed the species as endangered.

By the early 1970s the red wolf's range was restricted to the coastal prairies and marshes of extreme southeastern Texas and southwestern Louisiana (Carley 1979; McCarley & Carley 1979). Severely reduced numbers and interbreeding with an eastward expanding population of coyotes threatened the genetic integrity of the remaining red wolves. As a result of these circumstances, program officials in the early 1970s redirected the recovery objective from one of local preservation to planned removal of all red wolves in the wild (FWS 1990). Although extreme, the decision to remove the last red wolves from the wild could be justified through the development of a long-range objective to eventually return the species to parts of its native range.

Concurrent with initiating the recovery program in 1973, a captive-breeding/certification program was organized through a cooperative agreement between the FWS and the Metropolitan Park District of Tacoma at the Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium (PDZA) in Tacoma, Washington. Program officials identified three objectives for the captive-breeding program: (1) certify the genetic purity of wild-caught wolves; (2) increase the number of genetically pure red wolves in captivity; and (3) maintain a continuing red wolf gene pool for re-establishment of the species in the wild and for distribution to selected zoos (FWS 1984).

The red wolf was approved for a Species Survival Plan (SSP) by the American Zoo and Aquarium Association (AZA) in 1984. At that time, PDZA and four other facilities housed a total population of 63 animals. As captive husbandry techniques were refined and reproduction increased, preparations to initiate a reintroduction project in 1987 progressed. This historic first attempt to restore a carnivore species considered extinct in its former range generated tremendous interest in recovery of the species (Phillips et al. 1995). The zoological community demonstrated their support for the recovery program through commitment of and cooperation between facilities: by 1991 an additional 19 facilities had become participants in the Red Wolf SSP (RWSSP). Presently, 34 SSP approved facilities are involved in the RWSSP.

The cooperative captive-breeding effort and the collective expertise and resources provided by the RWSSP have been an integral part of the recovery program. As with all AZA SSPs, a comprehensive approach toward conservation is applied to the RWSSP. Population management, training, technology transfer to the field, and reintroduction of captive animals have all been equally important components.

Free-ranging wolves are currently distributed at two mainland release sites, eastern North Carolina and the southern Appalachians. Starting with the initial release in September 1987 of four adult pairs in the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge, North Carolina, 69 captive-born red wolves have been released and a minimum of 96 pups from 35 litters have been born in the wild. Currently 89% of the free-ranging population were wild born and they have successfully formed family groups and established territories. Although there has been occasional need to return wolves to captivity, some permanently, most have been re-released.

Support from private landowners--allowing the wolves access to private land--is paramount to the continued success of the reintroduction program in North Carolina. Of the eighteen verified packs that inhabit the eastern North Carolina release area, twelve currently occupy private lands and do so without any changes to how the land is managed. Incorporating larger corporate private lands and the addition of the Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge in 1993 have expanded the original reintroduction area to a total habitat base of approximately 550,000 acres.

The release project in the southern Appalachians is centered in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park (GSMNP). The project began in 1991 as a one-year experiment to provide opportunities to gather information on interactions of red wolves with coyotes, livestock and humans (Lucash & Crawford 1993). Findings resulted in a decision to proceed slowly with a full-scale reintroduction, evaluating results and problems as they occurred and modifying management accordingly. Since 1991, 37 wolves have been released at the GSMNP and 24 pups from six litters have been born in the wild, including 14 born this past spring. The number of free-ranging wolves has ranged from a high of 16 animals to none at all. Fluctuations in the population are due to mortality of adults and offspring, removal of animals with an unacceptable tolerance of human presence, movements out of the GSMNP, the release of new individuals, and reproduction in the wild (Weller 1995). While this project has proceeded slowly, the pace does not reflect any lack of effort by project biologists; rather, it demonstrates the social and political hurdles inherent in wolf reintroduction.

In addition to the mainland reintroduction efforts, there are three island projects coordinated by the FWS: Bulls Island, South Carolina; St. Vincent Island, Florida; and Horn Island, Mississippi. The primary purpose of the island projects is to give wolves some wild experience prior to release to mainland reintroduction sites. Other objectives include prey population control, public relations, and education in local areas--all of which could be beneficial towards laying the foundation for possible mainland reintroduction in the vicinity (Henry et al. 1995).

The RWSSP's role in the recovery equation has not diminished even as red wolves increase their numbers in the wild on their own, thus reducing total reliance on captive stock for release. The RWSSP will continue to be an integral part of recovery efforts through four different arenas. First, the RWSSP will scientifically manage the population and supply wolves for release when needed to add genetic vigor to the wild population or when additional reintroduction areas are identified. Second, the RWSSP will continue to support FWS field conservation activities at release sites. A third role will include working with the AZA Canid Taxon Advisory Group and Scientific Advisory Groups in areas such as genome banking and assisted reproduction, contraception, behavior and husbandry. Finally, the RWSSP will promote awareness of the red wolf through educational programs.

The partnership between the FWS and the AZA RWSSP has been critical to implementing strategies outlined for recovery of the red wolf. Clearly the program has changed since official recovery efforts began in the early 1970s. Now, as then, flexibility is required, but always with an eye toward recovery for the red wolf and the role this unique predator plays in the biologically diverse landscape of the southeastern United States.

Literature Cited

Carley, C. J. 1975. Activities and findings of the Red Wolf Recovery Program from late 1973 to July 1, 1975. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Albuquerque, NM. 215pp.

Carley, C. J. 1979. Status summary: the red wolf Canis rufus. Endangered Species Report No. 7. U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Albuquerque, NM. 36pp.

Henry, V. G., M. K. Phillips, W. T. Waddell, and T. Lewis. 1995. Protocol for island propogation projects. Red Wolf Management Series Technical Report No. 11. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Atlanta, GA. 50pp.

Lucash, C. F. and B. A. Crawford. 1993. Experimental release of red wolves into Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Red Wolf Management Series Technical Report No. 8. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Townsend, TN. 13pp.

McCarley, H. and C. J. Carley. 1979. Recent changes in the distribution and status of wild red wolves Canis rufus. Endangered Species Report No. 4. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Albuquerque, NM. 38pp.

Nowak, R. M. 1972. The mysterious wolf of the South. Natural History 81:50-77.

Nowak, R. M. 1979. North American Quaternary Canis. Museum of Natural History, University of Kansas Monograph 6. 154pp.

Phillips, M. K., R. C. Smith, C. F. Lucash, and V. G. Henry. 1995. Red wolf recovery program. Pages 157-168 in L. N. Carbyn, S. H. Fritts, and D. R. Seip, editors. Ecology and Conservation of Wolves in a Changing World. Canadian Circumpolar Institute. Occasional Publication No. 35. University of Alberta, Edmonton, Canada.

U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service. 1984. Red wolf recovery plan. U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Atlanta, GA. 37pp.

U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service. 1990. Red wolf recovery plan. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Atlanta, GA. 110pp.

Weller, J. 1995. Red wolf recovery in the Southern Appalachians: Conflicts and management. Unpublished paper at Wolves and Humans 2000: A Global Perspective for Managing Conflict. International Wolf Center and the University of Minnesota Center for Continuing Education and Extension, Duluth, MN.

Will Waddell is Coordinator of the Red Wolf SSP and works at Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium. He can be reached at 5400 North Pearl Street, Tacoma, WA 98407.

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