Although called the red wolf, the animal has a coat that varies in color from cinnamon–brown to nearly black. Smaller than its relative the gray wolf, the red wolf is about the size of a large dog.
It has an average head and body length of 37 to 47 inches (94 to 119 centimeters) and a tail length of about 10 inches (25 centimeters). It weighs between 45 and 65 pounds (20 and 30 kilograms). The animal’s most distinguishing features are its long ears and legs.
The red wolf feeds on swamp rabbits, raccoons, birds, white–tailed deer, and other small mammals. It is also known to eat chickens and, sometimes, calves and piglets. A male and female pair hunts on a territory averaging 30 to 40 square miles (78 to 104 square kilometers).
The wolves have a complex social order made up of family groups called packs. Individual males and females form a mating pair that is long–lasting. During the mating season (January to April), the pair establishes a den, usually in hollow logs, ditch banks, or under rock outcrops. Here they raise their young year after year.
A female red wolf gives birth to a litter of two to eight pups after a gestation (pregnancy) period of 61 to 63 days. The pups, who are born with their eyes closed, are completely dependent on their mother for the first two months. They remain with their parents for about two to three years.
Habitat and current distribution
In 1980, the red wolf was declared biologically extinct in the wild. All the animals currently in existence were raised in captivity. In 1987, a small population of captive–bred red wolves was reintroduced into the wild in North Carolina. Another small group was reintroduced into the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Tennessee in 1992.
The animals prefer to inhabit swamps, wetlands, bushlands, and forests.
History and conservation measures
Its decline was brought about by human settlers moving into its habitat. Forests were cleared for their timber or to create farmland, and the settlers killed the red wolf out of fear and ignorance.
As forests were cut down in eastern Texas and Oklahoma, the separate ranges of the red wolf and the coyote began to meet. The red wolves, whose numbers were very low, started to interbreed with the coyotes. As a result, the number of genetically pure red wolves in the wild became even smaller.
In 1973, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) established a captive breeding program in hopes of reintroducing the red wolf into the wild. It was the first recovery plan developed by the USFWS for an endangered species.
Over a six–year period, over 400 animals believed to be red wolves were captured in the wild. Only 17 of those were found to be true red wolves, and only 14 of these were able to breed successfully in captivity.
In 1987, four pairs of captive–bred red wolves were reintroduced to the wild on the 120,000–acre Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge in northeastern North Carolina.
Although disease and conflicts with humans took its toll on this small population, wild births and additional releases of captive–bred animals have kept it going. Today, there are more than 50 red wolves in this refuge.
Beginning in 1989, the USFWS established island sites where captive–bred wolves can have their first experience in the wild without having much human contact. Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge on Bull Island, South Carolina; Gulf Islands National Seashore on Horn Island, Mississippi; and St. Vincent National Wildlife Refuge on St. Vincent, Florida are the three pre–reintroduction sites.
The red wolves are allowed to breed and roam freely on these islands. After a while, they are captured and taken to the Alligator River refuge or the Great Smoky Mountain National Park.
Red wolves are bred in 31 facilities across the United States. There are between 250 and 300 red wolves currently in existence, two–thirds of which are in captivity. In May 2002, two wolf pups born in captivity were placed in the den of a wild wolf female who was already raising two pups of her own.
She raised the new pups without hesitation and they prospered in the wilderness, creating hope that this kind of fostering will allow greater reintroduction to the wilderness for red wolves.