1976, the first experimental attempt to restore red wolves to their natural
habitat came with the release of several individuals onto a 5,000-acre
Island located within the Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge in South
Carolina. 1977 saw the total captive count of wolves at 35.
By 1980, the red wolf was considered extinct in the wild. In
1987 came the first mainland release of the species, this time at
the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge in North Carolina. The
wolves had reproduced there by the next year, giving rise to the first
wild-born wolves of the recovery program. In the summer of 1989,
a second release was made at the refuge to aid reproduction. Because
of the refuge's small size, fears arose that it would be unlikely to be
able to support any more than perhaps two dozen red wolves. By the
mid- 1990s however, there were over 50 wolves inhabiting the refuge, at
least 37 of which were wild born. In 1993, the nearby Pocosin Lake
National Wildlife Refuge was added to the reintroduction program, and two
red wolf families were released there. Releases have also been made
on protected islands in Mississippi, Florida, and North Carolina.
The Great Smoky
Mountains National Park in Tennessee has recently been chosen for red wolf
reintroduction. A number of captive-born adults were released into
the 500,000 acre park in 1991. Since then, these wolves have reproduced
successfully, and as was hoped, wolves born at the park have proved rather
wary of contact with humans. If all goes well, the park is estimated
to be capable of supporting 50-75 red wolves. One of the most pressing
issues surrounding the red wolf is the hybridization factor.
For aid in conservation and legal purposes, the red wolf is most often
considered as a pure species. However, the final verdict on
whether the red wolf of today is a true species, a grey wolf/coyote
hybrid, or was a true species that long ago lost its
genetic uniqueness due to interbreeding with coyotes, is far from settled.
Whether or not the red wolf is a species or hybrid
issue which can seriously impact the protection it receives under the
Species Act. This law states that only animals which can be classified
as true species
are eligible for protection. A genetic
study performed in 1992 was unable to find any significant differences
between red wolves and known grey wolf/coyote hybrids. However, it
has been pointed out that there exists the possibility that these preliminary
findings could be erroneous, so the status of the red wolf as a genuine
for the moment, stands.