By Josephine Butler
The Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge rests on 154,000 acres of marshy swampland just south of the Albemarle Sound in coastal North Carolina. Among the high and low pocosins, fresh and brackish water marshes and swamps, the refuge is home to an array of native species like the American woodcock, the Atlantic white cedar and the elusive red wolf—considered one of the most endangered animals on the planet.
Once an abundant predator of eastern and south-central U.S., red wolf populations were decimated by the 1960s due to aggressive predator control programs and habitat loss.
The refuge, established March 14, 1984, has been home to the red wolf, or Canis rufus, since 1987. A wild population of roughly 100 wolves roams this 28-mile breadth of land. Approximately 200 wolves live in a captive-breeding program known as the Red Wolf Recovery and Species Survival Plan, jointly managed by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS).
The red wolf is smaller in stature than their more familiar counterparts, Canis lupus, or gray wolf. Weighing in at only 45 to 80 pounds, the average adult red wolf stands 26 inches at the shoulder and measures around 4 feet from the tip of the nose to the tail. While red wolves are mostly brown and beige colored, they are known namely for their reddish tufts of fur found around the ears and neck.
Canis Rufus live in packs of up to eight wolves, usually including a breeding pair and offspring of various ages. They primarily feed on small mammals such as racoons, rabbits and rodents, as well as the larger white-tailed deer.
The once vast range of red wolves, which stretched from Texas all the way east to Florida with some reports of the species as far north as Canada, was diminished to a remnant population discovered by a few concerned scientists along the Gulf coast in the 1970s.
Warren Parker is well into his 70s, with eyes that wrinkle in the most earnest kind of way when he smiles. Parker was with the USFWS from 1961 to 1991. This towering but slender and unassuming man vigorously shakes his head in humility should he ever be referred to as “the Father of the red wolf.”
In 1982, fifteen years after the red wolf was catapulted to the top of the endangered list with the passage of the Endangered Species Preservation Act, Parker received a phone call asking him to serve as the director of a new national program that would be the first of its kind—the Red Wolf Recovery Project.
According to Parker, the late Curt Carley, a biologist and former predator control officer for the USFWS, is “the real guy that saved the red wolves.” Carley recognized the near extinction of the red wolf and worked to develop a system of external measurements that would allow scientists to properly distinguish them from coyotes and gray wolves.
Only 17 of the 400 animals Carley and his colleagues initially trapped in southeastern Texas and southwestern Louisiana were found to be “pure” red wolves. Fourteen were shipped to a mink ranch outside of Tacoma, Wash., where they could live without the danger of canine parasites—such as intestinal parasites like heartworms and hookworms—to become the first
As the population began its slow recovery, Parker understood the need for a suitable stretch of land where the USFWS could eventually reintroduce red wolves into the wild. After relinquishing what initially looked like a promising piece of land between the Kentucky and Tennessee border, he was losing hope.
“It’s the ‘Little Red Riding Hood’ folklore that led to the decimations of wolf populations in the first place,” Parker said. “It seemed like everyone wanted to help the wolves, but not in their own backyards.”
In the spring of 1984, a relieved Parker received notification from the USFWS that Prudential Life Insurance Company had donated a large piece of land spanning parts of Dare and Hyde counties in northeastern North Carolina for the project.
Today, 117 red wolves roam this swampy expanse now known as the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge.
According to David Rabon, Red Wolf Recovery Program coordinator, “The wolf population has grown and so has the recovery area. Wolves now occur across 1.7 million acres that span five counties, not just the Dare County mainland.”
Southern Appalachia has also played a role in the efforts to revitalize red wolf populations. In 1991, the USFWS released red wolves into Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The inability of the wolves to establish a home range within the park and low pup survival rates led to their removal in 1998.
Red wolves can still be found in the region at the Western North Carolina Nature Center in Asheville, one of only 40 breeding sites worldwide.
According to Director Chris Gentile, three red wolves currently reside at the Center – Angel and Rufus, the breeding pair, and their female pup, Mayo (see sidebar at left).
As far as what the future has in store for the red wolves in eastern North Carolina, Rabon and his colleagues are hopeful that the populations will continue to grow.
“It’s important to remember that the red wolves were once a top predator in their food chain,” said Gentile, “and anytime you lose a piece of that puzzle, it becomes a weaker system. When Mayo was born last spring, it was like restoring one of those missing pieces.”
EDITOR’S NOTE: Since the writing of this article, Warren Parker, the “Father of the Red Wolf,” passed away at the age of 76. To remember Warren and to continue his legacy of reviving the red wolf population, his family encourages memorial contributions to the International Wolf Center, 1396 Hwy 169, Ely, MN 55731-8129.
The Western North Carolina Nature Center, based out of Asheville, is one of 40 facilities participating in the Red Wolf Recovery and Species Survival Plan.
The living public education venue—full of North Carolina-native plants and animals—joined the red wolf recovery reintroduction program in the 1980s.
“Since then, we’ve had several successful breedings from our pairs,” said Chris Gentile, director of the Western North Carolina Nature Center. “We’ve even had two of our red wolves reintroduced into the wild.”
The most recent success was Mayo, the cub of Angel and Rufus named for her birthday, Cinco de Mayo, in 2009. Mayo could be selected for reintroduction or to breed with another red wolf in a few years.
The red wolves are handled differently at the nature center than the rest of the animal residents.
“We are not as hands-on with them as we are with other animals,” Gentile said. “We don’t want them to be used to people, because they might be selected for reintroduction into the wild.”
This recovery program not only helps save a species, but also teaches people about it in a very real setting, emphasizing the importance of each link in the ecosystem.
“Since red wolves are an animal that has long existed in the state of North Carolina, it’s great to show the public and tell them a little bit about some of the problems they are facing,” Gentile said.