One of the most exciting wildlife conservation efforts at Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge is the Red Wolf Recovery Program. Red Wolves used to roam freely in the Southcentral/ Southeastern United States, but due to habitat loss and extensive hunting and predator control programs in the 1970s, they were limited to a small area along the Gulf coasts of Texas and Louisiana and were facing extinction.
Red Wolves are important for our ecosystem because, if mega-fauna such as wolves are able to survive and reproduce within an ecosystem, that provides us with an excellent indication of environmental quality. Predators, like the red wolf, help maintain balance in an ecosystem by controlling populations of prey species and removing unhealthy animals.
In the late 1970s, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service trapped the few remaining Red Wolves and tested their DNA. Only fourteen animals were found to be pure Red Wolves. In an attempt to increase their numbers, these animals were placed in zoos, and a captive breeding program was started. In 1980, the species was declared biologically extinct in the wild. But the goal of the program was always to re-introduce Red Wolves into the wild. The next step was to find them a suitable habitat.
Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge was chosen, and in 1987, four pairs of red wolves were reintroduced onto the refuge. The program has been extremely successful. As of June of 2013, the Red Wolf Recovery Program is currently monitoring 65-70 radio-collared animals, with total population estimates in the 5-county recovery area approximately 90-110 individuals.
The Red Wolf Recovery Plan’s goal is to establish three separate populations of red wolves in different parts of the country. Right now there’s one, here at Alligator River. Recovery goals would be to achieve approximately 220 red wolves in the wild, and a captive population of approximately 330 animals. Currently there are more than 43 facilities that participate in the Red Wolf Species Survival Plan that house over 185 captive red wolves across the country. The ultimate goal is to increase the Red Wolf population so that it is stable enough for them to be removed from the endangered species list.
These wolves are hard to see in the wild because they’re shy. They tend to stay away from people. However, most are equipped with telemetry collars with transmitters that allow biologists to track them. Biologists use radio signals to monitor their movements.
On Alligator River Refuge, probably the best way to learn about and experience Red Wolves is to attend a Red Wolf howling. We meet and caravan near the captive facility of Red Wolves here on the refuge. We howl, and those Wolves howl back. You may also learn more about the Red Wolves by visiting the National Wildlife Refuges Visitor Center on Roanoke Island where you’ll be able to see an exhibit of a Red Wolf family.