NATURAL HISTORY

Red Wolf } Canis rufus

FAMILY: Canidae

DESCRIPTION: Red wolves are smaller than gray wolves but larger than coyotes. Their fur is tawny to grayish in color and thinner than gray wolves’ fur, with light markings around their lips and eyes. They have more of a lanky appearance than gray wolves, with longer, thinner legs.

HABITAT: Red wolves appear to be habitat generalists, given their wide historical range, but they currently occupy the swamps, forests, wetlands and bushlands of northeastern North Carolina.

RANGE: The red wolf was once widely distributed throughout the southeastern United States from the Atlantic and Gulf coasts, north to the Ohio River Valley and central Pennsylvania, and west to Central Texas and southeastern Missouri. Now they occur only in five counties of northeastern North Carolina: Dare, Hyde, Tyrrell, Washington and Beaufort counties.

BREEDING: Red wolves reach sexual maturity at around three years old and mate from January to early March. The gestation period lasts for about 60 days, and females give birth to litters of two to six pups on average. Pups are well hidden in carefully selected dens while they are young and vulnerable.

Red wolves typically mate for life, and their familial “packs” are formed around a breeding pair. Packs may range in size from five to eight individuals, normally made up of the breeding pair and their offspring from different years.

LIFE CYCLE: Red wolves live for six to seven years in the wild.

FEEDING: Red wolves most often hunt small mammals, such as rabbits and raccoons, but they will occasionally hunt deer. Wolves may travel as far as 20 miles within their territories to find prey, and they may consume 2 to 5 pounds of food daily.  

THREATS: Red wolves are threatened by habitat loss; illegal killings and other human persecution; and hybridization with coyotes.

POPULATION TREND: Red wolves were declared extinct in the wild in 1980. In 1987 four captive pairs of red wolves were released in the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge in Dare County in northeastern North Carolina. The wild population steadily grew until 2006, when it reached its peak at 130 wolves, but then it began declining again — very rapidly in 2014. The next year the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimated the population to be between just 50 and 75 individuals — and by the beginning of 2016, the agency stated it might be down to only about 45 wolves. There were 17 breeding pairs in the wild in 2012, but by 2015 there were only seven pairs.
Red wolf photo by B. Bartell, USFWS