The North Carolina Zoo fills a central role in efforts to save the American red wolf from extinction. Once the southeastern United States’ apex predator, American red wolf populations have declined so dramatically that the species now depends on captive breeding to maintain a healthy, genetically viable population. By housing the second largest pack of breeding American red wolves in the world, the Zoo is helping to ensure the survival of this species. The Zoo also plays a coordinating role in the larger Red Wolf Recovery Program that includes 43 other institutional partners. This role involves spearheading landowner outreach in eastern North Carolina where the last 20-30 wild American red wolves live, and searching for a second recovery area where this iconic species can once again fill its rightful place in the wild.
One of the World’s Most Endangered Canids
Once the southeastern United States’ apex predator, hunting and habitat destruction had pushed the iconic American red wolf to extinction in the wild in 1980. The loss of this iconic species, together with the extinction of the Eastern cougar (the region’s other apex predator) led to major ecosystem changes, notably the rapid growth of the deer population as well as colonization of coyotes. To save the last remaining American red wolves, a captive breeding program was initiated by the US Fish and Wildlife Service at the Point Defiance Zoo in Washington State. The entire American red wolf population alive today, consisting of about 230 wolves in captivity and about 30 wolves in the wild, originated from this program founded with only 14 individuals.
A Successful Breeding Center
Today the North Carolina Zoo plays a central role in the captive breeding efforts for the American Red Wolf Recovery Program. Since the program started here in 1995, the Zoo’s American red wolf pack has bred 29 wolves, with nine pups raised in the past three years alone. Many of these pups have been transferred to contribute to breeding programs at other institutions. There are currently about 20 American red wolves housed at the Zoo. Most of these animals are kept behind the scenes to allow these sensitive carnivores to retain their fear for humans and stay wild, in preparation for possible future opportunities for release; two ambassador animals live in the guest viewing habitat in the North American region.
Mixed Results on Reintroduction
One of the core missions of the North Carolina Zoo is for animals housed at the Zoo to contribute to the survival of wildlife in their native habitats. The red wolf is no different; some of the animals raised at Zoo formed part of the only wolf population present in the wild, which was reintroduced to the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge in eastern North Carolina in 1987. In a groundbreaking effort to introduce new genetic material into a wild animal population, two pups born at the Zoo were carefully released and successfully fostered by wild American red wolves at Alligator River; this effort is now replicated to save the Mexican wolf from extinction. Due to these and other management efforts, the reintroduced population did particularly well initially, peaking at about 130 individuals in 2006. Unfortunately, pressures on the wild red wolf population (which include illegal hunting) increased in recent years. By 2017, this once thriving population was reduced to about 30 animals. Consequently, further reintroductions were halted in 2015, putting the future of this charismatic animal in the wild in jeopardy.
Expanded Housing for Greater Impact
The set-back at Alligator River has not stopped the group of passionate conservationists from working towards securing a future for the wolves. In fact, it only motivated them more to secure this species’ future. As part of a,n American red wolf recovery reassessment, the US Fish and Wildlife Service identified the need to double the current human-managed population before any further wild reintroductions can occur. The North Carolina Zoo plays an important part in this population expansion. Notably, thanks to $50,000 from the US Fish and Wildlife Service and $15,000 from Emily Millis Hiatt Foundation Fund, the Zoo recently doubled the space dedicated to its red wolf captive breeding program. This expansion has allowed the Zoo to house the second largest group of American red wolves in the world, with future expansion plans aimed to make the Zoo’s wolf pack the largest in the world.
A Coordinating Partner
Cementing the North Carolina Zoo’s position as a key player in the red wolf’s recovery, the Zoo’s Chris Lasher was appointed program leader of the Red Wolf SAFE Program, as well as the Red Wolf SSP coordinator in April 2018. Both these programs are administered through the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA): a SAFE (Save Animals from Extinction) focuses the collective expertise within AZA institutions and leverages their massive audiences to save a species, while a SSP (or Species Survival Plan) is a breeding and population management program designed to ensure the long-term sustainability of captive-based animal populations. Chris’ dual roles ensures close coordination, and thus greater impact, among these two programs. Through this role, the North Carolina Zoo will maintain its active role in efforts to safeguard the wolf population at Alligator River, and oversee the expansion of the American red wolf population in captivity. In addition, the Zoo will be coordinating efforts to find a second long-term recovery area where American red wolves can safely subsist in the wild in the future.
Partners: Red Wolf Coalition, Red Wolf SSP (with 43 other partner zoos and institutions), US Fish and Wildlife Service