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Red Wolf Population (Historically and Currently)

Today, red wolves are among the most endangered species in the world. Historically found throughout the southeastern United States, their population is now mainly concentrated in captive breeding centers, with only 15 wolves alive in the wild. Here we look at the current population of red wolves, the history of the species, and conservation efforts by state. With the right protections and dedicated conservation efforts, we can ensure that these incredible creatures are restored to the wild.

16 U.S. States with Past Red Wolf Populations

Red wolf population timeline
Red wolf population timeline | by: USFWS

If you’re curious about the red wolf population and habitat in the United States, this article provides a comprehensive overview of states that have a significant history with the red wolf and/or significant present-day ties to the red wolf conservation effort. You can delve into this data to uncover exclusive details that are pertinent to various regions.

The wild red wolf population is only present in one state. Historically, red wolves lived from Texas to Pennsylvania, covering a wide swath of the United States. However, due to habitat loss and extreme hunting-often by people who mistake red wolves for other animals like coyotes- the red wolf is critically endangered and is the rarest canid species in the entire world.

The red wolf population had been almost completely obliterated by the 1960s as a result of predation programs that rewarded people monetarily who killed predators considered to be dangerous, like the closely related gray wolf. However, by 1973, the red wolf was considered endangered and became protected by the Endangered Species Act, making it illegal to hunt red wolves any further.

At this point in time, there were about 17 red wolves left in a southeastern part of Texas that were taken into a captive breeding program. At this point, there were no more red wolves in the wild, leading to the species being declared extinct in 1980. After being bred in captivity, red wolves have slowly been introduced back into the wild at North Carolina’s Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge over the past few decades.

Red Wolf Population and Conservation Efforts in 16 States

Red wolf pups captive breeding
Red wolf pups captive breeding | image by George Gentry via Wikimedia Commons

1. Alabama

Alabama is home to a rich history of red wolf populations. Red wolves were historically found throughout the southeastern United States, including Alabama.

By the 1960s, the red wolf had become extirpated in Alabama due to a combination of hunting, trapping, poisoning, and habitat destruction. There are no red wolves in Alabama at this time.

2. Arkansas

Like Alabama, Arkansas has a long history of red wolves inhabiting the state’s woodlands. Although there are no red wolves living in Arkansas at the moment, Arkansas State University has committed to preserving the species.

It studies red wolves when they die, whether in captivity or in the wild, in order to determine what will make a successful future for the species and has formed a partnership with the Red Wolf Coalition, even going as far as to teach every incoming student a class on red wolves. The university hopes to be home to a pair of breeding red wolves in the future.

3. Florida

While the last of the red wolf population was eliminated in Florida around the mid-1900s, Florida also lost the Florida black wolf a little earlier on. The last known Florida black wolf was killed in 1934 and was a subspecies of red wolf endemic to solely Florida.

Distinguished by shorter ears and legs, a more pointed muzzle, and a longer tail than other red wolves, the Florida black wolf was a distinct type of red wolf that the world will never see again. It had a blackish hue on its back and legs, hence the name. There are currently no populations of red wolves established in Florida.

4. Georgia

The last documented sighting of a wild red wolf in Georgia was over one hundred years ago, in 1908, and since then the species has been completely wiped out from the state. In spite of conservation efforts, no evidence exists to suggest that these majestic creatures have re-established themselves in Georgia; they remain extirpated from this region.

5. Kentucky

Once home to a large population of red wolves, Kentucky is now devoid of this species- at least in the wild. The red wolf population in Kentucky was completely extirpated by the 1960s. Yet, Kentucky saw the birth of four new red wolf pups last year to the oldest breeding red wolf at the Land Between Lakes National Recreation Area.

6. Louisiana

As we know the species today, red wolves have long been extirpated from Louisiana. The last known wild red wolf in the state was shot and killed in the late 1960s, although some reports indicate that there were a few sightings in the 1980s. It is highly likely that these unsubstantiated sightings were actually sightings of coyotes, which strongly resemble red wolves.

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This isn’t unique to Louisiana, but what is unique to Louisiana and Texas is the research done on the DNA of some coyotes that live in the state. Investigation into the genetics of coyotes that live in Louisiana has revealed genetic traces of red wolves- their extirpated ancestors that still thrive in other parts of the country.

7. Maryland

Maryland was once home to red wolves, but they were completely extirpated from the state by the late 1960s, if not earlier- the exact date of the last red wolf sighting in Maryland is not documented. In recent years, there have been some reports of red wolves in Maryland, but these have all been unconfirmed or disproved. There is currently one red wolf in captivity at Salisbury Zoo.

8. Mississippi

It is believed that the last red wolf in Mississippi was killed by the 1950s. Although habitat destruction was a contributing factor, red wolves were hunted in numbers so large they are still recovering as a species. Today, there are no known wild red wolves living in Mississippi, although the discovery of red wolf genes in canids that live in the state has sparked discussions over re-introduction.

9. Missouri

While Missouri eradicated its red wolf population approximately 75 years ago, conservation efforts are now going strong in the state. The Endangered Wolf Center in Missouri is home to breeding wolves, who recently produced 4 pups. They work in concert with conservation efforts in North Carolina, flying any wolves ready to be released into the wild out to North Carolina.

10. North Carolina

Red wolf population area in north carolina
Red wolf population area in north carolina | by: David R Rabon Jr.

The red wolf population in North Carolina is one of the most important and well-studied populations of endangered species in the state. Once a common sight throughout much of the eastern United States, their numbers have dramatically declined due to habitat destruction and other human activities.

Today there are only about 20 tracked red wolves left in the wild with an additional 20 or so untracked, all living in Eastern North Carolina. The Red Wolf Recovery Program, which is overseen by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, has been working to protect and manage this endangered species since 1987.

The program works to restore red wolf populations through captive breeding and reintroduction into protected areas of North Carolina such as Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge and Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge.

The program also works to educate the public about red wolf conservation, and manage conflicts with private landowners who may be impacted by their presence.

11. Oklahoma

The wide-open prairies of Oklahoma used to be home to large populations of red wolves, but today, the animal has been extirpated from the state for half a century, with no plans for reintroduction in sight.

12. South Carolina

Unlike its northern neighbor, South Carolina is not home to any wild red wolf populations- but it does have several red wolf populations breeding in captivity at one of four wildlife centers in the state that hosts red wolves. As recently as 2021, Brookgreen Gardens in South Carolina welcomed breeding pairs of red wolves from a zoo in Ohio.

13. Tennessee

Extirpated by 1970, one of the first attempts at reintroducing red wolves into the wild occurred in Tennessee in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

A small population of red wolves was released in 1991, but the effort ultimately failed, with the remaining four red wolves captured in 1998 to be bred in captivity and protected so that red wolves could ultimately live.

14. Texas

Although red wolves no longer inhabit this state, the species made its last stand in the coastal area of southeastern Texas. That’s why today, researchers are studying the genetic makeup of so-called “ghost wolves”- a coyote hybrid found on Galveston Island that can have up to 70% red wolf DNA.

Scientists believe that the historical traces of red wolves in coyote DNA is not just interesting, it may be vital to diversifying the gene pool of the surviving red wolves if the current population has any hope of surviving.

The research coming out of Galveston Island also provides evidence that red wolf/coyote hybridization was definitely one of the causes of red wolf extinction- the dilution of red wolf genes is one of the reasons it’s been so hard to re-establish the red wolf population in the wild.

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15. Virginia

While red wolves once roamed Virginia, the population of red wolves in Virginia disappeared entirely by 1970, if not a little earlier. As of right now, there are no plans to reintroduce the species back into its former habitat in the state.

16. West Virginia

West Virginia’s forests once boasted a booming population of red wolves- but with no plans to reintroduce the red wolf into the wild in this state, the captive breeding center there works together with the Red Wolf Recovery Program to try and re-establish wolves in the wild in North Carolina.

The Remaining 34 States

  • Alaska- is not known to have ever had a red wolf population.
  • Arizona- has never been home to a population of red wolves, historically or recently.
  • California– has never lived here
  • Colorado- has never been home to red wolves. The Colorado Wolf and Wildlife Center is home to one pair of red wolves that are no longer breeding as of just last year.
  • Connecticut- is not the natural habitat for wild red wolves; however, Beardsley Zoo has been successful in breeding a pair of these majestic creatures.
  • Delaware- no wild red wolf sightings in Delaware since they were extirpated
  • Hawaii- is not a part of the red wolf range
  • Idaho- has never been a dwelling for red wolves
  • Illinois- extirpated by 1970, with claims of sightings that have been minimally investigated.
  • Indiana- driven to statewide extirpation due to the degradation of their habitat and overhunting
  • Iowa- never lived here and the state has no documented evidence of red wolf sightings
  • Kansas- not one red wolf has been found living there since they were extirpated
  • Maine- the habitat is not conducive to red wolves
  • Massachusetts- there is no documented evidence to suggest that this species ever existed in the state
  • Michigan- this state is not home to the red wolf and never has been
  • Minnesota– the red wolf has never been a part of the Minnesota ecosystem
  • Nebraska -is not a part of their historic range and red wolves have never been spotted here
  • Nevada- red wolves are not native to Nevada and never were
  • Nevada- is not a part of the historic range of red wolves
  • New Hampshire- was never home to red wolves
  • New Jersey- was never home to red wolves
  • New Mexico-not a part of the red wolf range
  • New York- this state has never been a home for red wolves
  • North Dakota- has never been home to red wolves
  • Ohio- extirpated by 1970
  • Oregon- was never home to the red wolf species
  • Pennsylvania-extirpated by 1970
  • Rhode Island- this state does not belong to the red wolf habitat range
  • South Dakota- not a part of the red wolf habitat range
  • Utah-not a part of the red wolf habitat range
  • Vermont- not a part of the red wolf habitat range
  • Wisconsin-not a part of the red wolf habitat range
  • Wyoming-not a part of the red wolf habitat range

A Quick Look At Red Wolves

Red wolf staring
Red wolf staring | image by Jean via Wikimedia Commons | CC BY 2.0
  • The red wolf is smaller than the gray wolf and coyote, with an average weight of 35–45 pounds (15–20 kg).
  • The red wolf’s diet consists mostly of small mammals, including rabbits, mice, and voles.
  • They are known to be highly social animals that live in packs and hunt cooperatively.
  • Red wolves have a reddish coat with hints of brown or gray along the back and feet.
  • Their ears are larger than those of a coyote, which helps them detect prey from farther away.
  • Red wolves are listed as endangered by the US Fish & Wildlife Service and protected under the Endangered Species Act.
  • In recent years, their population has been slowly increasing due to reintroduction efforts and habitat protection.

Size

The red wolf is a medium-sized wolf, typically measuring around 4 to 5 feet in length and weighing between 35 and 80 pounds. The size of the animal will vary greatly depending on its subspecies and location. For example, red wolves from the northern parts of their range may be larger than those found further south.

Similarly, males tend to be larger than females. The typical height of a red wolf ranges from 26 to 32 inches at the shoulder and its tail can range between 15 to 19 inches in length.

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The smallest wolf in North America, the red wolf is notably smaller than the Gray Wolf, which can reach lengths up to 6 feet and weigh up to 175 pounds. Despite its smaller size, the Red Wolf is still a formidable predator with powerful jaws and sharp claws. Its fur is usually reddish-brown or dark gray in color and its coat is thick and dense, allowing it to survive even in colder temperatures.

Diet

With a diverse diet that includes small mammals, such as rabbits and mice, birds, and carrion, the red wolf is also known to hunt larger prey when the opportunity arises. Red wolves have been observed using different techniques to track down their food.

These include digging in the soil for rodents or searching for frogs along the water’s edge. Red wolves are also very opportunistic and will scavenge around roadsides and have been known to take advantage of other animals’ kills, especially when they are in an area where there is less food available.

Habitat

Red wolf in the wild
Red wolf in the wild | Image by Šárka Jonášová from Pixabay

Endemic to the southeastern United States, where it inhabits swamps, marshes, and wet lowlands, the red wolf prefers moist habitats with dense vegetation, such as shrub-scrub environments near rivers or streams. This adaptable species can also be found in upland forests, coastal prairies, and sandhills that are free of human disturbance.

Mating

Mating for the red wolf typically occurs in winter and early spring. Male wolves will often wander to find mates, while females are more sedentary. During the mating season, a male may mate with several females before settling down.

The pair will stay together until the pups are born in late spring or early summer. The parents may part ways in order to look for other mates or to establish new territories. However, if resources are plentiful, it is not uncommon for red wolf pairs to remain together for several years, particularly because co-parenting and hands-on parenting is very common in red wolves.

Mating behavior for red wolves is quite distinct from other canids. During the mating season, males will often howl to declare their territory and attract females. This is known as “haunting,” and is a key part of their courtship ritual.

Male red wolves are also more likely than other species to share food with females during courtship, allowing them to bond through cooperative behavior. Additionally, the male will often groom the female during courtship, licking her face and body as a sign of devotion.

After mating, the female will construct a den in which to give birth. She will typically isolate herself prior to giving birth and may stay in the den for up to two months afterward with her pups. Red wolf parents are fiercely protective of their young and will work together to bring food back to the den and guard against potential predators.

Conservation Efforts

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

Red wolves are one of the most endangered species on earth, making conservation efforts critically important. In order to help protect these animals, a variety of initiatives have been put into place across North America.

One major effort is the Red Wolf Recovery Program, which was established in 1987. This program works with state and federal agencies to reintroduce red wolves into parts of their native range. It also focuses on providing resources to help conserve existing red wolf populations, such as habitat protection and improving land management practices.

Another important conservation effort is the Red Wolf Species Survival Plan (SSP). This program provides captive breeding and genetic management for the species in order to help maintain a healthy population. The SSP also works to educate people about the importance of red wolf conservation, as well as how they can help protect these animals in their area.

Lastly, organizations like the Red Wolf Coalition and the Endangered Wolf Center are working hard to raise awareness and support for red wolves. They organize events, provide resources to schools, and conduct research in order to better understand and protect these animals.

Conservation efforts are essential in order to protect red wolves from extinction. Through the combined effort of government agencies, private organizations, researchers, and everyday citizens, we can work together to ensure that these animals have a future in our world.