Thursday, April 12, 2012

The Red Wolf Is Coming Back From Extinction in the Wild

Canis rufus 2 - Syracuse Zoo
Photographer: Dave Pape (Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons)
As the title says, the red wolf is slowly bouncing back from extinction in the wild. Not "near extinction," but actual extinction.

The generally shy red wolf was once common in the southeastern United States. Even though this animal tends to avoid humans, humans still felt the need to kill off as many wolves as they could in the early 20th century. Extensive predator control programs with large bounties paid to wolf hunters encouraged this. The wolves also lost habitat as humans cut down forests. By the 1930s, red wolf populations were decimated. According to the Endangered Wolf Center, it's believed that only two populations remained by that point. By 1970, less than 100 animals remained. When the Endangered Species Act became law in 1973, the red wolf was declared endangered. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service captured as many remaining wolves as possible, and by 1980, the red wolf no longer existed in the wild.

Of the 17 wolves captured, 14 were used to start a captive breeding program. In 1987, enough pups had been raised to start the restoration efforts, and four male-female pairs were released in the Alligator National Wildlife Refuge in North Carolina. There are currently between 100 and 120 red wolves in the wild, all in North Carolina, and around 200 are still in the captive breeding program.

The red wolf is still critically endangered, and it's clear that there's still a lot of work to do to bring the populations back up to stable levels. Currently, the biggest threat is hybridization. Coyotes extended their range into red wolf territory in the 1990s, and the two species started mixing. Fish & Wildlife is working to keep this under control by sterilizing the coyotes. There are also 40 zoos and nature centers around the country involved in the captive breeding program, so hopefully these animals will exist in the wild at healthy levels once again.

Check with the Fish & Wildlife Service periodically for updates.

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