Red wolves are shy, elusive, and misunderstood predators. Until the 1800s, they were common in the longleaf pine savannas and deciduous forests of the southeastern United States. However, habitat degradation, persecution, and interbreeding with the coyote nearly annihilated them. Today, reintroduced red wolves are found only in peninsular northeastern North Carolina within less than 1 percent of their former range. In The Secret World of Red Wolves: The Fight to Save North America’s Other Wolf, nature writer T. DeLene Beeland shadows the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s pioneering recovery program over the course of a year to craft an intimate portrait of the red wolf, its history, and its restoration.
Q: At the broadest level, what is this book about?
A: This is the story of the red wolf, its flirtation with extinction, and its restoration to the wild. The red wolf is smaller than a gray wolf but has a huge story, and I think it is more fascinating than any other wolf I’ve come across. The book is a history of the species, as best we understand it, but it’s also a story about the people who have worked to recover the red wolf—those who have helped coax it from the brink of extinction into one of the earliest, if not the first, Fish and Wildlife Service first captive-breeding programs of a carnivore in the U.S. It’s also a story about those who are helping today to reintroduce it to a portion of its former historic range. It’s a story about nature, wildlife management, conservation science, and people coexisting with a major reintroduction program for an imperiled, and not always liked, carnivore. I like to think it’s the most complete story ever written of the red wolf as a species and the trajectory of its intersection with humans, who have both hurt and helped this native southeastern predator.
Q: Who was this book written for?
A: First and foremost, it was written for people who love to learn about our nation’s wildlife. When I began learning about the red wolf I searched long and hard for a current book to read so I could learn more about Canis rufus—but I couldn’t find a single current book that addressed the breadth of the animal’s history, the scientific research on its origins, and the history of the recovery program. That’s when I realized that I’d have to write the book I wanted to read. Ultimately, it’s written in a way that breathes fresh air into the older parts of the red wolf’s history, while bringing a first-person cinematic narrative approach to the more modern parts of its story. I think anyone with a love for nature, wildlife conservation, the natural history of endangered species, or the scientific and day-to-day work of animal reintroduction programs will appreciate this book.
Q: Why do you refer to the red wolf as North America’s other wolf?
A: Most Americans are aware of the iconic gray wolf, Canis lupus, and its reintroduction to the Northern Rocky Mountains, even if they aren’t wildlife lovers, conservationists, or affected ranchers; yet even many devoted wildlife lovers are completely unaware that there is a separate species of wolf in North America called the red wolf, Canis rufus. And even fewer people are aware that the red wolf evolved solely in North America, unlike the gray wolf, which colonized our continent from a source population that arose in Eurasia. Historically, red wolves likely ranged from central Pennsylvania south to Florida and west to central Texas and southern Illinois; they covered most of the south and central East. Ecologically, red wolves live and function similar to other wolves: they live in extended family units; the breeding pair bond and produce young over many breeding seasons, often spending their entire adult lives together; and they eat medium- to small-sized prey, from white-tailed deer to nutria and rabbits. So, here is a wolf that represents the first wolf to be reintroduced in the U.S. and yet the public remains largely unaware it even exists! I find that so strange! This lack of awareness, and the lack of conservationists supporting the red wolf, intrigued me from the very first time I learned of this species.
Q: Are red wolves really red?
A: One of my favorite quotes from the book is when a red wolf advocate says she first expected the wolves to have “I Love Lucy red hair.” But they don’t. I describe it as a forest red, like the reddish hue of dried pine straw lit by a golden summer sunset. The red of their coats is really a cinnamon or umber dusting on the backs of their ears and running down their shoulders and legs. But red wolves are mostly tawny with brownish and black guard hairs, whitish fur lining their lips, and lighter fur on their undersides. The name “red wolf” was a common name used locally in central Texas that later became popularized over the animal’s entire southeastern range.
Q: What happened the first time you saw a wild red wolf?
A: My perception of what red wolves are was challenged the first time I saw one. I was shadowing a red wolf biologist at Sandy Ridge, a facility within the Red Wolf Recovery Area in northeastern North Carolina, where wolves from the captive breeding program are housed and wild wolves are kept temporarily for medical treatment or recovery. When we walked into the pen of a wild female recovering from severe mange, we saw deer bones littering the ground and smelled rotting flesh. She was resting in a small metal box that functions like a den, and when the biologist lifted the lid and we peeked inside, she was surprisingly meek. Our faces were only a body length away! It was obvious that she was intensely uncomfortable having us stare at her, but I would have thought a wild wolf would growl, or leap at us, or make some show of ferociousness. Apparently some do, but
this one simply snuck sidelong glances at us and then quickly turned her gaze away. In fact, she was so scared that she pooped. It forced me to ponder if red wolves were less fierce than gray wolves, or at least less fierce than what the wolf archetype would have us believe. It was very revealing.
Q: What piqued your interest to explore the red wolf’s story?
A: The extreme nature of the red wolf’s plight caught my attention from the beginning. I have a soft spot for endangered species in general. In my view, they truly are the least among us and lack voices to speak for themselves. In many ways, the red wolf’s story is one that has been around for several decades, since they first were identified as going extinct; perhaps their story is old enough that it has faded from public awareness. During the research, I was surprised to learn that red wolves were the first species for which the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service designed a captive breeding program as a component of a recovery effort with the intention of reintroducing the captive-bred animals to a portion of their historic range. Other endangered species captive breeding and reintroduction programs, like those for the black-footed ferret, California condor, and Mexican gray wolf, have benefited from lessons learned from the pioneering red wolf reintroduction program. In many ways, the red wolf program created a recovery road map for many other imperiled species.
Q: How many red wolves are left and what is their greatest threat?
A: In the wild, there are about 100–120 red wolves. In captivity, there are roughly 200 spread throughout forty-one breeding facilities across the nation.
In the mid-1970s, the Fish and Wildlife Service could find only seventeen individuals that they believed to be true, unhybridized red wolves left in the wilds of extreme southeastern Texas and southwestern Louisiana. Of these, only fourteen were able to breed and contribute to the current restored population, so the species faced an extreme genetic bottleneck just four to five decades ago. Some would say their greatest threat is genetic swamping through hybridization with coyotes, but I disagree. The Fish and Wildlife Service has shown that they have the tools to manage the species in the wild against hybridization with coyotes, and I go into great detail in the book as to how they do this.
So if you accept that the red wolf’s future will never be unmanaged, hybridization is not its greatest threat. Rather, I think the biggest threat is climate change, which threatens its current coastal habitat, nearly one-third of which could be swamped if the coast of North Carolina experiences a one-meter rise in sea level.
Additional reintroduction sites are needed in order to ensure their future presence in the wild. However, the landscape of the red wolf’s former historic range has changed fundamentally in the past fifty years, and this poses problems for finding suitable sites where they might thrive today.
Q: You took a first-person approach for the writing and shadowed several Fish and Wildlife Service biologists over the course of a season to write about the modern recovery efforts. What are some of the experiences that most stand out in your mind?
A: There are two very vivid experiences that get at vital aspects of the modern management of the red wolf. First, I was lucky enough to not only witness but participate in a puppy fostering event. This is where the biologists place zoo-born red wolf puppies into wild dens. It’s a way of transferring genes from the captive breeding program into the wild population without having to release “naive” zoo-raised wolves, and it’s also a way of augmenting the wild population’s numbers. On the summer day when I participated, I was able to place one of the zoo-born puppies into the wild den—a small pocket dug out of moist earth and well hidden beneath thick myrtle bushes. My heart was pounding. It was really transformative to know that that particular puppy had been born in the Lincoln Park Zoo but would be nurtured and raised in the Albemarle Peninsula by a wild red wolf pair.
The second experience was not nearly so warm and fuzzy, but was important nonetheless. I was shadowing a biologist one winter as he set and monitored leg-hold traps in the recovery area to capture certain juvenile red wolves so that they could be fitted with radio collars, which are a key component of the management program. The collars help biologists to prevent the wolves from hybridizing with coyotes. It’s very difficult to entice a wild wolf to step on a two-inch round pan and get caught in a trap, especially given how large an area they range over! But on this particular morning, the biologist had caught two wolves—one he was targeting, but the other, an older sibling, had already been caught and collared. He didn’t need to recatch the older sibling, but there she was, and she’d nearly chewed off two of her toes in the time she’d been stuck in the trap. Her injury was a bitter pill for both of us to swallow, and the biologist was deeply upset. It was difficult to see her injury, and to balance that with the knowledge that the trapping has to occur. Trapping and collaring the wild red wolves is the best way to keep tabs on them and prevent them from pairing with coyotes. As cruel as it may seem, this is the core management aspect, combined with other techniques, for safeguarding the species from being genetically swamped by coyote genes. When you look at the big picture, two wolf toes seems a small price to pay. Still, it was a gut-wrenching and uncommon event to witness.
Q: Some people think red wolves and coyotes are the same thing, or at least similar animals. Are they?
A: No, red wolves are a different species. This question is really asking, What is a red wolf? It also points to how red wolves and coyotes are related. We know that coyotes split from the Canis lineage leading to gray wolves by about 1.8 million years ago. The fossil record and other studies at the molecular level agree on that quite nicely. But a burning question has been, Where did the red wolf come from? A few years after the first red wolves were reintroduced in 1987, a science paper concluded based on genetics that coyotes and gray wolves had mated and produced what we now call the red wolf. In other words, the paper indicated that red wolves arose as a recent hybrid of coyotes and gray wolves. If this were true, then red wolves may not qualify for endangered species protections, so this caused a big stir.
More recent genetic research, however, has pointed to a starkly different answer to the origins question. The current line of thought—and the one I embrace in the book—is that red wolves branched off from an ancestral coyote lineage tens of thousands of years ago. In this scenario, they do not have a hybrid origin at all; instead, they evolved into a distinct species. But they were then displaced and disrupted by the early European settlers of the eastern United States. There is a close genetic relationship between red wolves and coyotes because of their shared ancestry. This explains why modern red wolves and coyotes interbreed so easily. Many people don’t understand that this kind of process is relatively common among species that are geologically young—that is, species that are only tens of thousands of years old as compared to millions of years old.
Q: A conservation effort like the one to save red wolves is really a global one. What are some of the ways this story carried you beyond the red wolf’s wild range into those national and international networks?
A: Dozens of zoos across the United States have participated in the captive breeding program to safeguard the red wolf from extinction. I traveled to Point Defiance Zoo in Tacoma, Washington, clear across the country from the wild red wolf population, to interview the director of the Red Wolf Species Survival Program. The SSP would not exist without the broad network and cooperation of the zoos, wildlife parks, and breeding facilities that participate voluntarily in the red wolf’s captive breeding program. In a way, the captive breeding program is the flip side of the reintroduction program, kind of like the underbelly that is not often exposed. It was eye-opening to learn about the measures they took to care for individual wolves in the hopes that they would breed and produce offspring in order to increase the red wolf’s collective genetic diversity. In the book, I write about observing a procedure on a female red wolf’s uterus, and about efforts to cryopreserve red wolf sperm for artificial insemination experiments. So while the book takes a very close and in-depth look at the wild red wolf population in northeastern North Carolina, and the people working to restore red wolves to the wild, I also dial out to the bigger perspective of the national network of professionals working in zoos and other facilities to conserve and expand the captive population of red wolves.
Internationally, the red wolf’s origin science bleeds into a third species of wolf present in North America around the northern and eastern reaches of the Great Lakes in Canada. So when I was researching the leading red wolf origin theories, I found myself learning about the eastern Canadian wolf and interviewing several Canadian researchers about this other cryptic wolf, Canis lycaon. Wolves are wide-ranging creatures so it’s not surprising that the story of the diminutive wolf traditionally known from the southeastern forests actually stretches up into Canada. And wolves and their related wild canids range all across the planet, so when you dial out to the broadest perspective it’s easy to make comparisons between the red wolf’s story and that of other small, isolated, and misunderstood wolf populations such as the wolves of Italy, those of the Iberian peninsula in Spain, the geographically isolated Ethiopian wolf, and even the imperiled dingo of Australia, which is threatened with extinction through hybridization with common dogs.
The red wolf’s story is very much the broader story of many wolves and wild canids globally that have been misunderstood and persecuted until their populations shrank to near extinction, but that were then revived or stabilized with modern conservation efforts. The question, of course, is what trajectory these wolves will take from here.
T. DeLene Beeland is a nature and science writer living in Asheville, N.C. Her work has appeared in the Charlotte Observer and Wildlife in North Carolina, among other publications. You can follow her on Twitter @tdelene.