The red wolf used to be common throughout the southeastern United States. Now it only exists in eastern North Carolina because of a decades-long campaign to protect a population decimated by loss of habitat and predator control programs.
The Canis rufus was one of the first animals listed when the Endangered Species Act was created in 1973. By 1980, the red wolf faced a number of threats, including hunting, human encroachment and the loss of prey due to urbanization and overhunting.
Thanks to a US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) captive breeding program, there were enough red wolves to reintroduce the species into the wild in 1987. In the first reintroduction of an extinct large carnivore in human history, four pairs, each equipped with a radio transmitter, were released onto what was then the 120,000-acre Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge in the northeastern part of the state.
The population peaked at over 130 in 2006 but inaction, USFWS mismanagement and illegal killings the numbers dwindled to about 10 a decade later. The animals in the wild were further endangered in 2014 when the USFWS halted the wild releases and allowed landowners to kill the animals.
Something similar happened out west with the gray wolf reintroduction program of 1995 formally known as the Northern Rocky Mountain Wolf Recovery Plan. Both species were listed as endangered species at the same time but their paths could not have been more different. The NC program predated the Yellowstone reintroduction and lessons learned with the red wolf experiment helped make the gray wolf reintroduction a success, too much so, according to some.
The gray wolf population rebounded so much that the species was delisted as endangered during the Trump administration and state governments declared open season on the animals. In Wisconsin, hunters killed or trapped 218 in just three days.
Meanwhile, in North Carolina, the Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC) sued USFWS for failing to protect the animals and, in an effort to pull the species back from the brink, a federal judge ordered the agency to follow the Red Wolf Species Survival Plan which included the resumption of releases into the wild.
A little over a year ago, USFWS released two male red wolves onto the now 500,000 acres Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge which extends across five counties on the Albemarle Peninsula. Three months later, the agency released four more adult red wolves and placed four captive born pups with a wild mother to foster, bringing the wild population to 18.
These red wolves are some of the most closely observed and protected animals anywhere. The people working to save them like Defenders of Wildlife are also running a PR campaign to change public perception of the animals as a useless threat. They explain that the red wolf plays an important role in biodiversity. Within their ecosystem, they keep numbers of prey like deer in check. In turn, the smaller prey populations are less likely to balloon out of control and consume all available nutrients in their habitat.
Roughly 250 remain in the captive breeding program run by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums breeding program.The total number in the wild is now estimated at between 20 and 25. Wildlife biologists and researchers say that once the population reaches 40, they can breathe a little easier because the species' chances of survival improve exponentially. They hope the second chance to prevent extinction is the charm.