A new litter of red wolf pups born in the North Carolina wilderness could be the start of a new beginning for the species. At least that is what conservationists are hoping for. Prior to the new litter of adorable pups, the red wolf was down to less than 20 known wolves living in the wild, making it the most endangered wolf species in the world.
The new litter was discovered inside the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge and consists of four females and two males. It’s the first pair of red wolf pups born in the wild since 2018 (via NPR). “This red wolf pair was formed through the combination of several management actions and the two red wolves subsequently following their natural instincts in pairing, establishing their territory and mating,” a post announcing the good news by the Red Wolf Recovery Program read.
The wolves, which look similar to coyotes and are sometimes shot because of this, have had an uphill struggle full of false starts for decades. By 1980, the wolves had disappeared from the wild entirely. The 1990s saw the introduction of red wolves into the Smoky Mountains National Park, but the project ultimately proved unsuccessful. Since then, the wolf species have been the subject of focus for several zoo-affiliated breeding programs around the South.
In 2020, caretakers at the North Carolina Zoo in Asheboro looked after new five red wolf pups, part of 250 in the breeding program. The wolf enclosure at the zoo is designed to mimic the natural habitat that the wolves will eventually be released back into as closely as possible. The only artificial elements are a water supply and several wooden den boxes. As for the caretakers, it’s only mom and dad other than the occasional medical checkup. “I imagine that each puppy has a unique personality, but we don’t know what that is because we don’t get close,” the zoo’s director and CEO Pat Simmons told Garden & Gun.
Red wolves were a vital part of the ecosystem in the Southeast before the arrival of settlers. As progress pushed the wilderness out, however, the red wolf was nearly exterminated completely. The only thing that saved it from completely going extinct was likely the passing of the Endangered Species Act in 1973.
In 2012, red wolves in the wild had reached a population of 120 known individuals, but once again, they would face a setback. The North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission had approved a temporary measure that allowed hunters to kill coyotes in the area where the wolf packs were starting to gain ground. By the time conservationists had reached an agreement with the NCWRC after a red wolf was mistakenly shot, the numbers had dropped to 100 and only continued to fall. Not a single wolf pup born in the wild was reported in 2019, 2020, or 2021.
The wild pups have an uphill battle and literally are the future of the species in the wild. While that’s undoubtedly a lot of pressure, a new litter is always good news, regardless of the circumstances. “Every generation yields a new born hope for the red wolf…a cause for joy and celebration!” said the Red Wolf Recovery Program.
Photos via Red Wolf Recovery Program, Wikimedia Commons