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Red Wolf Breeding Program



In general, reviews have shown that reintroductions of endangered species for conservation purposes have average success rates ranging from 11% to 53% (Beck et al., 1994; Fischer and Lindenmayer, 2000; Wolf et al., 1996), which suggests that this method as a conservation tool needs to be further investigated and improved.

There are many risks involved when reintroducing captive animals; the main concern is that animals in captivity often show a loss of natural behaviours associated with wild fitness. Deficiencies can be seen in foraging/hunting, social interactions, breeding and nesting, and locomotive skills. Other considerations include captive-born animals’ lack of immunities to viruses/diseases prevalent in their wild counterparts (Bush, 1994; Cunningham, 1996; Woodford and Rossiter, 1994). Studies have suggested that projects using captive-born animals are less likely to be successful than projects using wild-caught animals (Mathews et al, 2005). In addition, the success of a reintroduction can only be examined at a specific point in time, which, in the majority of projects, is often shortly after release, since long-term monitoring is infrequent due to time and budget constraints.

Although reintroduced captive-born carnivores are particularly susceptible to starvation, unsuccessful predator/competitor avoidance and disease the Red wolf captive-born breeding and reintroduction program seems to be one of the few attempts that have been quite successful so far.

Red wolves used to range throughout the southern United States before European settlement of that region. However by 1980 the species was extinct in the wild mainly due to hunting and habitat loss. The species had been listed as endangered in 1967 and during the early 1970s the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) realised its recovery could only be achieved through captive breeding and reintroduction to the wild.

The program in brief

• Captive breeding phase

The program was established in 1976 by utilising 17 red wolves captured in Texas and Louisiana. In 1977 the first pups were born, and by 1985 the captive population numbered 65 individuals held in 6 zoological facilities.

Between September 1987 and April 1991 a further 18 zoological facilities contributed in maintaining red wolves, increasing the annual federal budget from $30.000 to $ 191.000. By January 1991 there were 159 red wolves in captivity.

Along with the captive breeding project, the recovery of the species was also supported by the American Association of Zoological Parks and Aquaria Species Survival Plan Program. Their contribution provided the expertise that was necessary for the captive species by ensuring their genetic stability and reintroduction in the wild. In specific, it aimed at maintaining 80-85% of the genetic diversity found in the original founder stock for at least 150 years, which was equivalent to the preservation of 90% of the heterozygosity present in the existing captive population. To meet this objective USFWS would have to establish a population of 550 red wolves.

• Reintroduction phase

In 1987 the USFWS initiated a reintroduction project in north-eastern North Carolina, in the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge (60,727 ha) and the adjacent Department of Defence land (18,218 ha). Both areas offers a suitable environment for the species, consisted of marshes, swamps, forests, and agricultural fields and are characterised climatically by hot summers, mild winters and high humidity. The whole area supports abundant prey, i.e. white-tailed deer, raccoons and marsh rabbits, and it’s free of coyotes, feral dogs, and livestock. Moreover, it is surrounded by large bodies of water on three sides, so that wolves are unlikely to cross. This project generated tremendous public interest in the red wolf as it was actually the first ever attempt to restore a carnivore species which had been declared extinct.

To prepare local communities and adequate human/wolf conflicts, there were numerous personal contacts, especially with hunters and trappers in order to explain the significance of this project. Killing the red wolves in order to prevent loss of livestock or property damage was declared prohibited and in instances of depredations citizens were required to contact USFWS or state conservation officers authorised to initiate control measures. Lethal means were only allowed if attempts to capture the animals failed, or if there was clear danger to human life, although such cases were considered extremely unlikely. There would be no compensation policy to offset depredations because livestock were virtually absent in the area and no prosecution in cases of accidental or unavoidable kills.

Selection of individuals to be released was based on age, health, genetics, reproductive history, behaviour and physical traits. Each selected wolf was first acclimated in a controlled area of 255m2 in order to be prepared for life in the wild. Acclimation periods were averaged 18.7 months and during this period human contact was minimised and there was a different feeding strategy based mostly on all-meat diet plus live prey to hone the animals’ predatory skills. Before release, selected wolves were fitted with motion-sensitive radio collars for constant monitoring during the program.

Between September 1987 and December 1995, 76 captive-born wolves were released; 45 adults and 31 pups. Releases were carried out between August and October and involved families or adult pairs. Successful releases would be considered those resulting in the released wolf breeding and producing pups in the wild. Of the 45 adult releases one individual disappeared and of the 44 remaining 12 (27%) were successful. Of the 31 pup releases, four pups disappeared before experiencing a breeding season in the wild and of the 27 remaining 3 (11%) were in fact successful.

During the program there were a minimum of 22 births in the wild containing 66 pups out of which, up to December 1994, 54% were free ranging, 23% had unknown fates, 15% had died and 8% had been returned to captivity.

Intensive management of the wolves was required throughout the reintroduction program including capturing animals and monitoring them telemetrically. This enabled USFWS to determine the outcome of 71 of the 93% of captive-born red wolves and the fates of the 79% of the wild-born wolves.

USWFS had to increase the area size by 25% in order to meet the expansion needs of the free-ranged wolves, by integrating about 60,000 acres of private land into restoration area at a cost of $3,951 per year for 5 years.


As of the end of December 1994 a minimum of 42 red wolves were free-ranging, including 36 wild-born animals. 76% of these animals inhabited private land. This figure outcome was quite optimistic illustrating that red wolves could be restored to north-eastern North Carolina in a controlled manner. During the program every management issue that arose was resolved without inflicting long-term damage to the wolves and with little inconvenience to the residents of the area. Red wolves could flourish in a wide variety of habitats and there was sufficient habitat available to meet the population objectives outlined in the recovery plan.

The people involved in the program felt that by every measure this reintroduction effort was successful and generated benefits that extended beyond the immediate preservation of red wolves; they positively affect local citizens and communities, to expand their efforts for the conservation of other imperilled species, as well. USFWS estimated that by 2000 over 100 wolves would inhabit the region.

According to the latest data presented from National Geographic News about this program (Oct. 2010), about 100 red wolves roam free today in north-eastern North Carolina.

“One of the major concerns of a predator reintroduction program like this one is whether or not the predator will be able to hunt when it returns to the wild – and these wolves are doing that”, said Nancy Weiss, western director of species conservation for the Defenders of Wildlife, a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group dedicated to the protection of native wild animals and plants in their natural communities. “They are mating, they are able to hunt, they are reproducing,” she added, which point to the program’s success.

This recovery program seems to have taken the species from extinction in the wild to a restored population of more than 100 in north-eastern North Carolina. But while conservationists consider the program a success, many challenges still lie ahead for the species that once ranged across much of the south-eastern United States.


1) Conserving the Red Wolf, by Mike Phillips, Canid News, Vol. 3, 1995, © 1995 International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources, Available [Online] at: http://www.canids.org/PUBLICAT/CNDNEWS3/consredw.htm, Date of last access: [27-09-2011]
2) The effects of captive experience on reintroduction survival in carnivores: A review and analysis, by Kristen R. Jule, Lisa A. Leaver, Stephen E.G. Lea, University of Exeter, Animal Behaviour Research Group, School of Psychology, Washington Singer Laboratories, UK, advertised at ScienceDirect, Biological conservation 141 (2008), © 2007 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved. Available [Online] at: www.sciencedirect. Com, journal homepage: www.elsevier.com/locate/biocon, Date of last access: [27-09-2011].
3) Red Wolves Back from Extinction in U.S. Wild, by Cameron Walker, National Geographic News, Thursday, October 28, 2010, Available [Online] at: http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2003/ 01/0131_030131_redwolf.html, Date of last access: [28-09-2011]


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