Red Wolves Need You

The Truth About Red Wolves

The world's only population of red wolves is in trouble.

The world's only population of red wolves is in trouble and there's not a lot of time left to save them. Once, these smaller cousins of gray wolves roamed the eastern and southcentral United States, but the wild population was wiped out by 1969. In 1987, red wolves were reintroduced into eastern North Carolina. From an initial 14 wolves, the population grew to 130 individuals by 2006.

By 2012, the red wolf population had shrunk to 90-100 individuals, in large part due to gunshot mortaility. Now, without sufficient explanation, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) reports their total number in the wild to be fever than 25. Red wolves are now the most endangered canid in the world, and one of the rarest mammals. These wolves desperately need support from the USFWS and citizens to ensure that they have a future in the wild.

Join the Truth About Red Wolves campaign: help spread the facts about these important animals and build support for their existence in the wild before it is too late.

Top photo by Once and Future Laura.

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What You Can Do to help red wolves

National Supporters

Please write to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, politely expressing your support of the red wolves and disappointment that the agency has expressed reservations about continuing the recovery program. You can send your letter via the website of the Animal Welfare Institute. Once you enter the website and enter your address, you will find language to include in your email. We encourage you to personalize your letter, however, to make your submission unique.

Write to the USFWS


How did red wolves go extinct from the wild? When and how did red wolves return?

Map of the Red Wolf Historical RangeIntensive predator control programs and the degradation and alteration of the species' habitat had greatly reduced red wolf numbers by the early 20th century. Designated as an endangered species in 1967, the red wolf was declared extinct in the wild in 1980 and the last wolves were gathered from Texas and Louisiana and placed into captivity in order to foster a captive breeding program and eventually recover them in the wild. In 1987, an experimental population of 14 red wolves was reintroduced into eastern North Carolina's Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge. These animals started producing wild-born pups in 1988. By 2002, the entire red wolf population in North Carolina was wild born.

Today, they roam the five county recovery area encompassing Beaufort, Dare, Hyde, Tyrrell, and Washington Counties, which is mostly a mix of agricultural land, mixed forest, and marshland.

Photo of a Red Wolf pup yawning, Photo courtesy Red Wolf Coalition


What do they eat?

Red wolves feed on small rodents, raccoons, marsh rabbits, deer, and nutria, an invasive species in North Carolina. By naturally preying on some of these species, they help to prevent certain agricultural crops from being destroyed.


What other benefits do they bring to the state of North Carolina?

Red wolves attract visitors to the five-county recovery area, who come to see the red wolf exhibits, take part in the education programs, and learn more about the field programs. Past economic studies have shown that the red wolf attracts millions of dollars to local economies via ecotourism and provides other benefits as well. The red wolf was the first predator to be restored to former habitat after going extinct in the wild and is a powerful educational tool for helping citizens understand the value of wildlife.

"14 percent of the population (up to 14 wolves) died each year in large part due to mistaken identity"

Red Wolf Compared with Coyote, Red Wolf photo by Bob Jensen, Coyote photo by Matt Knoth

What are the major threats to red wolves?

Shooting by hunters is the leading cause of death, a fact attributed to the similarity in appearance between coyotes and red wolves. Prior to 2014, 7 to 14 percent of the population (up to 14 wolves) died each year due to gunshot mortality. The species is also at risk of hybridizing with coyotes, which have traditionally been sterilized in the recovery area so as to prevent their hybridizing with the wolves.

Red Wolf in Field, Photo courtesy Red Wolf CoalitionIn 2013, the Animal Welfare Institute, Defenders of Wildlife, and the Red Wolf Coalition, as represented by the Southern Environmental Law Center, brought a lawsuit against the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission (NCWRC), arguing that, by authorizing the shooting of coyotes within the recovery area, the NCWRC was causing unlawful "take" of the red wolf (i.e., actions that harass, harm, hunt, or kill the animals) in violation of the Endangered Species Act. On May 13, 2014, a federal court issued a preliminary injunction blocking the NCWRC's authorization of coyote hunting—including at night—in the recovery area.

With the hope that red wolves will continue to have a permanent home in Red Wolf - Photo by Flickr user UcumariNorth Carolina and obtain additional reintroduction sites in their historical range, the plaintiffs in the suit entered into a settlement agreement with the NCWRC. This agreement outlines significant steps to protect endangered red wolves in North Carolina, including banning coyote hunting at night throughout the five-county Red Wolf Recovery Area and during the day on public lands, except in limited circumstances. It also requires permits to kill coyotes on private lands, mandates reporting of all kills, and prohibits coyote contest hunts throughout the recovery area. Overall, the settlement aims to continue to decrease threats posed by indiscriminate coyote hunting, while also addressing the concerns of local private landowners and state and federal agencies that are in charge of red wolf recovery. Since coyote hunting has been limited in the five counties where the red wolves roam, fewer red wolves have been killed due to gunshot mortality.

Despite this, later that year, the USFWS announced that it would review the status and future of the Red Wolf Recovery Program in North Carolina, potentially terminating it and pulling the red wolves out of the state.

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Facts About Red Wolves

Red Wolf - Photo by Jim Liestman
  • The red wolf is distinguished from the gray wolf and the coyote by size, coloring, genetics, and history. Based on years of research and data supporting the biological uniqueness of this predator, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has legally recognized the red wolf, Canis rufus, as a distinct species. Petitions to delist the red wolf on grounds that it is a hybrid have been defeated, and Canis rufus remains a protected species under federal law in the United States.

  • Gunshot mortality is the leading cause of death for red wolves in the recovery area, mostly by hunters who mistake them for coyotes. Shooting coyotes randomly in the recovery area also risks the chance that a sterilized coyote is shot and a breeding coyote moves into the territory, increasing the potential for hybridization with red wolves. In addition, studies have indicated that increasing lethal control of coyotes in other states is not an effective means of controlling coyote populations in general.

  • Studies have indicated that some coyotes in Virginia are the descendants of coyotes who have mated with Great Lakes gray wolves, but not with the rare red wolf. Any red wolf-coyote hybrids produced in the recovery area have typically been removed by the USFWS.

  • By designating the red wolf as protected and dedicating funding and efforts for more than 25 years in a program to rehabilitate the once-nearly-extinct species, Congress has repeatedly demonstrated that it has chosen to preserve the red wolf— not simply to let inaction determine its fate.

  • To date, there are no known red wolf attacks on humans, and few documented livestock kills.

  • Not only do red wolves feed on invasive species such as nutria that cause significant crop damage, they are not a significant threat to North Carolina's deer populations. According to the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission, North Carolina's population of white-tailed deer is estimated at 1.35 million animals and the state's population was growing well into the 1990s after the red wolves had been there for years. Although the deer population has since stabilized, there are still areas throughout the state where localized populations continue to increase. More people hunt white-tailed deer than any other game species in North Carolina. Each year, approximately 250,000 hunters take more than 2.9 million trips afield in pursuit of deer.

  • Red wolf territory encompassed the entire southeast before they were extirpated in the 1960s. The most current taxonomic and biogeographic reviews indicate the red wolf was the historic wolf of the southeastern USA, from Texas to Florida and up the Atlantic coast. There are abundant historical records that a wolf was here in North Carolina at the time of European Colonization.

  • A breeding pair of red wolves can hold a territory to prevent coyote infiltration, but in order to do so, breeding pairs must be supported and protected in the recovery area.

  • In response to one action alert asking the public for their input on red wolves, over 110,000 comments in support of continuing their recovery in the wild were submitted to the USFWS. In addition, many editorials in support of continuing the program have been submitted from the public.

  • Red wolves bring tourism income and other economic benefits to North Carolina.

  • Red wolves recovered from 14 individuals reintroduced into the wild in 1987 to 130 individuals in 2006. The population is robust and viable, but needs support from the USFWS—like other endangered species on the road to recovery.


For more information about the red wolf recovery program, timeline, and publications, visit the USFWS webpage.


September 29, 2016:

Court Stops US Fish & Wildlife Service from Capturing and Killing Wild Red Wolves

August 6, 2016:

Red wolves trying to survive extinction, N.C. Zoo helping

July 20, 2016:

It isn't easy being a red wolf

July 17, 2016:

Facing fate: Science comes down in favor of red wolf, but some consider its future 'dire'

July 13, 2016:

Half a Million People Urge US Fish and Wildlife Service Not to Abandon Red Wolves

May 31, 2016:

Red Wolves Need Emergency Protection, Conservationists Say

May 24, 2016:

Emergency Petition Filed to Save Plummeting Red Wolf Population

January 26, 2016:

North Carolina Landowners Express Support for Recovery of Endangered Red Wolves

November 13, 2015:

Conservation Groups Take U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service to Court for Failures to Protect the World's Only Wild Red Wolves

September 1, 2015:

Organizations Notify USFWS of Intent to Sue Over Killing of Red Wolf Mother
Fish and Wildlife faulted in red wolf shootings
Advocates plan to sue over red wolf losses

June 30, 2015:

USFWS Suspends Red Wolf Reintroductions
Federal wildlife agency puts off decision on NC red wolf recovery effort

June 23, 2015:

Conservation Groups Condemn Killing of Red Wolf Mother

Older Coverage:

Visit AWI's red wolf case page

Coalition Partners


Animal Welfare Institute  Center for Biological Diversity  Defenders of Wildlife 
Endangered Species Coalition  WildLands Network