The red wolf's historic range covered the southeastern United States, from central Texas to Florida and as far north as the southern portions of Illinois and Indiana. Young and Goldman (1944) identified three subspecies: the Florida red wolf (Canis lupus floridanus), ranging from Florida to Alabama and now extinct; the Mississippi Valley red wolf (C.r. gregoryi), once found from Mississippi west to the Trinity River in East Texas; and the Texas red wolf (C.r. rufus), located from the Trinity River westward to the Edwards Plateau of central Texas. Some experts believe the red wolf is the oldest species of wolf, and that it lived in the southeastern U.S. for hundreds of thousands of years; if this is true, the red wolf is the only kind of wolf not a subspecies of Canis lupus. However, others argue that the red wolf is actually a cross between the gray wolf and the coyote. This debate over the origin of the red wolf has formed the basis for opposition to its reintroduction as an endangered species.
In addition to predator control activities, logging, mining, land clearing and drainage projects severely shrunk the red wolf's habitat. This habitat alteration in Texas encouraged the coyote (Canis latrans) to expand eastward, encroaching on the red wolf's range until a steadily-shrinking red wolf population was swimming, as one researcher put it, in a sea of coyotes. Increasingly unable to find suitable mates within their own species, red wolves began interbreeding with coyotes, creating a "hybrid swarm" that by the 1930s further threatened the survival of Canis rufus.
In 1966 federal predator control programs were ended in Texas, and the following year the red wolf was designated an endangered species -- even before the Endangered Species Act was passed (1973). The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS) began a red wolf recovery program in 1972, establishing a captive breeding program. More than 400 wolf-like canids were captured in Texas and Louisiana -- the locations of the last pockets of red wolf populations in the U.S. -- over a period of eight years. These coastal areas were marginal red wolf habitat, being heavily industrialized and consisting largely of wetlands; it was obvious that, due to a combination of factors, the red wolf was hurtling toward extinction. Of these 400 animals, only 43 met morphological standards for red wolf, and further testing revealed that only 17 were genetically pure. Fourteen of these successfully bred in captivity. The first litters were produced in 1977, and ten years later four pairs of red wolves were reintroduced to the wild on the 120,000-acre Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge in northeastern North Carolina. This reintroduction was later expanded to one million acres, including federal, state, and private lands -- and a Department of Defense bombing range. The first litter of pups born in the wild occurred in 1988. Between the 1987 release and 1999 there were 53 recorded red wolf litters at Alligator River. There were also 11 hybrid litters produced. The latter were removed from the population, but red wolf-coyote hybridization remains a concern.
A second reintroduction was undertaken in the Cade's Cove area of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in 1992, but was terminated in 1998 due to an unacceptably high mortality rate among the wolves. This was due primarily to disease and malnutrition. The wolves were unable to establish home ranges because an inadequate prey base caused them to wander -- often onto private lands. Of the 37 red wolves released in the Smoky Mountains NP between 1992 and 1996, 26 were recaptured or died outside the park. Only four of 33 wild-born pups are believed to have survived; parvovirus, coyote depredations, and heavy infestations of external and internal parasites took their toll. When the reintroduction was terminated there were still a few wolves whose fate was unknown; these "MIA" wolves are likely dead. However, the FWS retained the experimental population designation in the park until it could be certain no red wolves remained.
There are several pre-reintroduction sites, used principally to confirm that red wolves born in captivity can survive in the wild: Bull Island in the Cape Roman National Wildlife Refuge (South Carolina), Horn Island, a part of the Gulf Islands National Seashore (Mississippi), and St. Vincent National Wildlife Refuge (Florida). The wolves have proven themselves of value to the island ecosystems, preying on rabbits which destroy protective dune vegetation and on raccoons which eat the eggs of endangered sea turtles.
As of June 1999 there were 175 wolves in captivity and 75-80 in the wild, with 10 to 15 breeding pairs in the Alligator River NWR. Thirty-three facilities participate in the Red Wolf Species Survival Plan managed by the Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium in Tacoma, Washington. The recovery goal is 330 red wolves in captivity and 200 in the wild in at least three mainland reintroduction sites. (Currently there is but one -- Alligator River.) The FWS is currently considering other sites for reintroduction. The process of selecting the sites is complex, as the FWS takes biological, logistical, and political factors into consideration. Land use and the attitudes of the human inhabitants in any proposed area are evaluated.
The red wolf was the first large predator extinct in the wild to be bred in captivity and successfully reintroduced into a portion of its historic range. The progress made in red wolf reintroduction was used to justify the effort and expense that went into the subsequent reintroduction of the gray wolf to Yellowstone National Park and central Idaho.