Our Canine Cousins – The Red Wolf

By on February 11, 2014

In a remote and relatively unpopulated region of North-Eastern North Carolina, approximately 100 red wolves make their home. They are all that’s left of a species that exists nowhere else in the world.

The red wolf (Canis rufus), a smaller and more slender cousin of the better known and more widely distributed grey wolf (Canis lupus), holds the dubious distinction of being the first large carnivore to become extinct in the wild in North America. Thanks to U.S. Government restoration efforts, a small, reintroduced population of red wolves currently seeks out a fragile existence in
the marshy lowlands called Pocosin.

Their near extinction and subsequent comeback represents a remarkable conservation success story, says Nina Fascione.

Red wolves once roamed throughout the South-Eastern United States as far north as Pennsylvania and as far west as central Texas. Because of its wide distribution, the red wolf played a vital role in a variety of ecosystems, from swampy lowlands to forested mountains.

red wolf behind bars

Shy and reclusive like its grey wolf cousin, the red wolf was nonetheless hunted, trapped and poisoned until few remained. By the 1970s, only a remnant population of red wolves existed in marginal habitat along the Gulf Coast of South-Eastern Texas and South-Western Louisiana. In a recovery program triggered by mandates of the Endangered Species Act, America’s strongest wildlife conservation law, the last 14 pure red wolves were captured by United States Fish and Wildlife Service biologists and placed in a captive-breeding program in a last-ditch effort to save the species.

The red wolf’s road from near extinction to recovery has been steady. However, the recovery effort has been plagued by biological and political hurdles including scientific disputes, cross-breeding with coyotes, political and legal opposition, and several on-going threats to the remaining habitat.

History of The Red Wolf

The origin of the red wolf is a subject of great debate among researchers. One theory suggests that red wolves originated from a cross between the larger grey wolf and the diminutive coyote. Other more recent studies indicate that red wolves split from grey wolves millennia ago, and that coyotes are a more recent off-shoot of the red wolf branch. There is also scientific disagreement about the original range of the red wolf, particularly in regards to how far north red wolves roamed prior to their disappearance.  These arguments are not merely academic.




To many people, restoring the wolf is not only a biological necessity, but a moral imperative. Because the species was decimated through human actions, many feel a sense of obligation to future generations to restore what we destroyed and to preserve the wild lands on which great predators and wildlife depend. As we now know, the South-Eastern United States is not complete without its native canine inhabitants.

About The Author

For more information on the Red Wolf and for details of how you can assist red wolf recovery, please visit www.defenders.org and www.redwolves.org

Nina Fascione has been Vice President of Field Conservation Programs for Defenders of Wildlife, headquartered in Washington, D.C., and a Board member of the Red Wolf Coalition, headquartered in Columbia, North Carolina. She has been working on wolf issues for more than 20 years and has written numerous publications on the species.  She recently edited a book titled People and Predators: From Conflict to Co-existence.

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