Preparing red wolves for life in the wild
On a cold November day in 2022, keepers and volunteers at the Endangered Wolf Center prepared five American red wolves to be transported to the wilds of North Carolina.
But preparation for their wild lives really began when they were born. The Animal Care team at the Endangered Wolf Center works hard to help maintain the wild instincts of captive wolves. By minimizing human interactions only to necessary veterinary care, wolves at the EWC maintain their natural shyness around humans – a trait that helps them survive in the wild.
From Missouri to North Carolina
On a donated flight from LightHawk Conservation Pilots, the five red wolves traveled in style from Missouri to North Carolina. To help them get used to their new home, the wolves were placed in acclimation pens.
One pack came from the Endangered Wolf Center as a family and while in an acclimation pen bred and successfully had a litter of four pups. The other pack includes an adult male from the Endangered Wolf Center who was paired with a female that was fostered to the wild in 2021 from Akron Zoo.
In May of 2023, the doors of the acclimation pens opened. The two packs of American red wolves were released on a protected refuge in North Carolina in separate areas.
With only one wild breeding pack in the Eastern North Carolina Red Wolf Population (ENC RWP) area prior to this, these collaborative releases provide important genetic diversity for the most critically endangered wolf in the world.
Ash, hiding behind some foliage. Wolves like Ash that demonstrate a natural shyness around humans make the best candidates for wild releases, which is determined by the USFWS.
Wolves bring balance to ecosystems
Releasing animals is a conservation strategy that takes individual red wolves bred and born in managed care and places them in their native range, sometimes paired with wild red wolves within their territory. Because the wild population of American red wolves is dangerously low, it is vital to place individuals of breeding age on the landscape to assist in the repopulation of the most endangered wolf species in the world. The zoological institutions and conservation centers that house these red wolves manage them in a way that allows them to retain natural instincts that will help them to survive when released into the wild. In addition to not habituating them to humans, facilities like ours that work with the SAFE (Saving Animals From Extinction) program, keep red wolves in packs and feed native prey (such as deer) to teach them what to hunt.
The American red wolves were introduced to the landscape through a “soft release”. A soft release is when animals are introduced to their new home in a habitat space surrounded by temporary fencing. This allows them time to acclimate to their new surroundings and bond with their mates. Over time, the fencing will be pulled back to allow the red wolves to calmly step into their new home.
The successful recovery of an endangered species is a constant challenge and one that requires coordination and partnership among government agencies, nonprofit organizations, and community partners.
Cirilla, a red wolf female with long legs, was paired with Ash at the EWC.
Ash and Cirilla bred in 2022 and kept their one pup hidden for more than six weeks from our keepers. As a family, they are now living in the wild.
Zoos, conservation organizations, and governmental agencies working together
These rewilding efforts are important because the American red wolf is a keystone species, which means that the ecosystem and the plants and animals in it rely on the red wolves to keep it in balance. This helps reduce the spread of disease and creates a healthier environment for animals, plants, and humans. When red wolves remove sick or diseased animals, they can help lower the chances of the spread of zoonotic pathogens.
“At the Endangered Wolf Center, we have learned over our 50-year history that collaboration is key to a successful conservation program. We are proud to partner with organizations such as USFWS, Akron Zoo, LightHawk, and many more to help recover a critically endangered American species.”
Sarah Holaday, Director of Animal Care and Conservation at the Endangered Wolf Center
A history of the red wolf recovery program
The American red wolf recovery effort is the first recovery effort of its kind. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), working with their partners, released the first red wolves back into the wild in 1987. The program was very successful for several decades and grew to an estimated 150 individuals in the wild. Unfortunately over the past 20 years, the already critically endangered wild population plummeted to less than 20 red wolves in the wild.
American red wolves are solely native to the United States. Historically, American red wolves roamed the Southeastern United States, from Pennsylvania to Missouri, to Texas, to Florida. Due to overhunting and habitat loss, the population declined dramatically. In 1973 the red wolf was officially listed as an endangered species under the Endangered Species Act. In the 1960s and 1970s, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service worked to capture the few remaining wild red wolves to bring them into zoological institutions to launch a breeding program in hopes to recover this species. They accomplished this goal, but by capturing the few remaining wild red wolves, the American red wolves were functionally extinct in the wild. The breeding program in managed care was very successful and led to the first release in 1987 in North Carolina which is currently the only location in the United States inhabited by wild American red wolves.
The EWC Animal Care team (Veronica Seawall, Maggie Vlaytcheva) and the American Red Wolf SAFE program leader, Regina Mossotti, load the fifth crate onto the plane for the donated LightHawk flight.
A wild parent this spring, Ash’s howl can now be heard in North Carolina.
“Restoring damaged ecosystems in America’s remaining wild places is so crucial right now. By reintroducing native animals like the American red wolf, we have the potential to dramatically improve the balance and biodiversity that we so desperately need.”
Mark Cross, Executive Director at the Endangered Wolf Center
Paired with a female that was fostered in 2021 from Akron Zoo, Gus must have made a good first impression. The two bonded and had a litter of pups during their time in the acclimation pen.
(From left to right) EWC Animal Keeper Maggie Vlaytcheva, EWC Animal Curator Veronica Seawall, and EWC Director of Animal Care & Conservation Sarah Holaday
Thank you to our wild release partners
Collaborating partners in the release included the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Association of Zoos and Aquarium’s American Red Wolf SAFE (Saving Animals From Extinction), Akron Zoo, and the Endangered Wolf Center. Transportation for these red wolves was donated by LightHawk.
Organizations like these are helping to save this species. Individuals can help, too. If we work together to save this critically endangered wolf, their howls in the wild can be heard for generations to come.
How you can help red wolves
You can get involved to help save the American red wolf. A great way to start is by learning about them, sharing what you know, and supporting organizations that are working to save this species. Make a donation today to support their conservation both at our facility and in the wild.