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Are There Red Wolves in Tennessee?

The red wolf is an indigenous species of the southeastern United States that has been pushed to near extinction. Its historical range once included parts of Tennessee, where they were a vital part of the ecosystem. The state of Tennessee is actively working to protect and restore the red wolf population, and there are several programs in place to help ensure their survival.

Let’s learn about the history of red wolves in Tennessee and ongoing conservation efforts.

Are There Red Wolves in Tennessee?

Male red wolf staring
Male red wolf staring | image by Red Wolf via Wikimedia Commons | CC BY 2.0

There are no wild red wolves in Tennessee. Sadly, the red wolves that once thrived in Tennessee and all throughout the southeastern United States were wiped out by 1970 due to human-caused habitat destruction, hunting, and genetic dilution.

What Kind of Wolves Live in Tennessee?

The red wolf’s historical range once included the state of Tennessee, as mentioned above though this is no longer the case. The gray wolf is the other species of wolf that is in the United States, but you won’t find one in Tennessee. Today, red wolves only exists in a couple of pockets in North Carolina in the wild.

Gray wolves are still found in areas of Alaska, northern Michigan, northern Wisconsin, western Montana, northern Idaho, northeast Oregon, and the Yellowstone area of Wyoming.

Are There Red Wolves in The Great Smoky Mountains?

The Great Smoky Mountain Range spans parts of Tennessee and North Carolina and is home to a variety of wildlife. Unfortunately, red wolves are not among them. Red wolves were once common throughout the area, but they have not been seen in the Great Smoky Mountains since the early 1990s.

This mountain range was actually home to one of the only other reintroduction efforts for red wolves in the United States. In 1991, a total of 13 red wolves were released into the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. While sightings continued for a few years after their release, there have been no confirmed sightings since 1998.

Reintroduction into the Great Smoky Mountains was hotly contested by several farmers and landholders in the area who believed the wolves posed a threat to their crops, livestock, and maybe even to them.

In 1998, scientists captured the remaining 4 red wolves left from the reintroduction program to be taken into captivity. Today, red wolves do not live in the Great Smoky Mountains of Tennessee or North Carolina.

What is The Red Wolf Recovery Program?

Captive male red wolf
Captive male red wolf | image by Red Wolf Recovery Program via Wikimedia Commons | CC BY 2.0

A conservation effort to restore red wolf populations to the wild, the Red Wolf Recovery Program was initiated by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) in the mid-1980s with the goal of reintroducing red wolves into parts of North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia, Tennessee, and Arkansas.

The program is a cooperative effort between the USFWS, wildlife biologists, state wildlife agencies, universities, conservation organizations, private landowners, and other partners.

The Red Wolf Recovery Program has had some success in restoring red wolf populations to eastern North Carolina where they were declared extinct in the wild in 1980. Today there are approximately 15 red wolves in the wild, with no other states that were previously a part of the red wolf’s range planning on reintroducing the species any time soon.

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What States Have Red Wolves?

Historically, red wolves lived in Texas, Louisiana, Alabama, Arkansas, Missouri, Indiana, Illinois, Oklahoma, Florida, South Carolina, North Carolina, Georgia, Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, and of course, Tennessee.

Today, the red wolf only lives on the Albemarle Peninsula in North Carolina, a coastal area that encompasses 5 counties where efforts to re-establish their population in the wild have been ongoing since 1987 without a lot of growth.

As of today, about 15 red wolves live in the wild in North Carolina. Additionally, there are red wolves bred in captivity in 23 states across 44 wildlife centers that work in concert with the Red Wolf Recovery Program in North Carolina.

How Can You Distinguish a Red Wolf From a Coyote?

Red wolves and coyotes look very similar, so it can be difficult to distinguish between the two-something that led to the extinction of red wolves in the wild to begin with. However, red wolves are larger than coyotes, with a reddish-orange coat color and long, thin legs.

Showing off a leaner frame with shorter fur than coyotes, the head of a red wolf is longer, having larger triangular ears and longer snouts. When howling, red wolves have a higher-pitched call that is distinctly different from the lower-pitched howl of a coyote.

Can a Red Wolf Breed With a Coyote?

Western Coywolf hybrid
Western Coywolf hybrid | image by L. David Mech mail via Wikimedia Commons | CC BY-SA 3.0

Yes, a red wolf can breed with a coyote. In fact, red wolves and coyotes are closely related species that are capable of interbreeding. This hybridization has been documented in the wild in areas where both species inhabit the same geographic area, like Tennessee.

Hybridization between the two species was once believed to be rare due to the red wolf’s smaller population size. When red wolves were put on the endangered species list, scientists began to consider the possibility that hybridization was happening more frequently than previously thought and even contributing to the decline in the population size of the red wolf.

Recent research has shown that “coywolves” or red wolf/coyote hybrids were more numerous than once imagined, with many coyotes today still carrying red wolf genes. Mating between red wolves and coyotes can have a negative impact on the red wolf’s conservation status since interbreeding can dilute red wolf genes.

In order to protect the red wolf, scientists have implemented conservation measures such as captive breeding and reintroduction programs. These efforts are essential for helping preserve the species and its genetic diversity. The goal is to create a self-sustaining wild population of red wolves that is not threatened by hybridization with coyotes.

What Other Extinct Animals Once Lived in Tennessee?

Red wolf at the zoo
Red wolf at the zoo | image by Brandon Trentler via Flickr | CC BY 2.0

In addition to red wolves, several other species of animals have gone extinct in Tennessee. These include the passenger pigeon, dire wolf, eastern elk, and short-faced bear. The passenger pigeon was an abundant species of pigeon that once roamed the skies of Tennessee, but its numbers dwindled due to overhunting.

An animal that was alive thousands of years ago, the dire wolf was likely unable to keep up with the gray wolf when it came to competition for prey and eventually went extinct. The eastern elk, which is now extinct in North America, used to inhabit the eastern United States, including Tennessee but was rapidly hunted to extinction following the European settlement of America.

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Similarly to the dire wolf, the short-faced bear went extinct thousands of years ago. It is believed to have died off because its habitat couldn’t keep up with its prey demands, particularly with smaller bears as competition.

Some of these animals are examples of the way species naturally go extinct as the environment changes over time, but others, like the Eastern elk and passenger pigeon, share in the fate of the red wolf. All three are animals with a vital role to play in the Tennessee ecosystem yet have been hunted into extinction.

A New Home For The Red Wolf

The red wolf is a part of Tennessee’s history and was once an important part of its ecosystem. There is still a lot of work to be done to ensure the long-term survival of red wolves in the wild, but with increased awareness and understanding of the challenges they face, the future of red wolves could still be promising.