Last Stand of the Red Wolf
America’s ‘other wolf’ was reintroduced to the wild after a last-ditch roundup in Texas.
By Russell Roe
With the hair standing up on the back of our necks, we listened as the howls rang out in primal peals — haunting, howling vocalizations that rose and fell in chaotic disorder as the red wolves spoke their minds on a summer night in the swamp. What we heard wasn’t the pure, single howl of the lone wolf but the modulating tones of a chorus howl, with wolves dropping out and rejoining the chorus for a full minute and a half of sounds that were melodic, eerie and wild. They were the sounds of one of the most endangered animals in North America.
Wolves bark, whimper and growl, too, but it’s the howl that fascinates us. In Texas, the red wolf’s howl echoed for the last time across the forests and plains more than 30 years ago, when biologists rounded up the final ragtag group of wolves in a last-ditch effort to save the species. Today, the howls of wild red wolves can be heard only on a marshy peninsula of eastern North Carolina, where they were reintroduced after being declared extinct in the wild. This past summer I joined about 30 people there for a red wolf “howling safari” and heard their wild call.
It’s been a rough journey for America’s “other wolf,” full of cliffhangers and near-catastrophes. As a species, it has been to the brink of oblivion and back. Today, the red wolf is an endangered species success story, though many challenges still stand in the animal’s way. This year marked the 25th anniversary of its reintroduction into the wild.
Red wolves, lanky predators native to the Southeast, are smaller than gray wolves and larger than coyotes. Their coats aren’t truly red but range from tan to black with reddish highlights. In Texas, red wolves lived in the eastern part of the state and gray wolves in the west.
For generations, wolves have evoked hatred and fear in people. It was government policy to eradicate red wolves until people realized there were hardly any left. Passionately persecuted with gun, trap and poison, they almost disappeared. Once, red wolves roamed as a top predator across the southeastern U.S., from Florida to Texas and as far north as Pennsylvania. By the 1960s, through predator control and habitat loss, they were reduced to a sliver of marginal habitat in the bayou country along the Gulf Coast. In Texas, the red wolf had its last stand.
In 1962, an Austin College professor named Howard McCarley sounded the alarm about the red wolf and its unexpected spiral toward extinction. He pointed out that what people thought were wolves were actually coyotes or wolf-coyote hybrids.
The wolf’s howl helped reveal the dire situation. In the mid-1960s, biologists went in search of the red wolf in places across the Southeast where the wolf was thought to live. They drove back roads at night playing taped wolf howls — a sound the wolves can’t resist answering — and listened for a response. The choruses of answering howls came from both wolves and coyotes, and they focused in on the howls that were distinctly wolfish.
They were dismayed by what they found. The red wolf no longer roamed its familiar territory. The biologists determined that the only red wolves remaining were hemmed in along a stretch of coast in southeastern Texas and southwestern Louisiana. It seemed to be an unlikely final redoubt for the forest-loving wolf — coastal prairies and marshes that are a stone’s throw from Houston, Galveston and Beaumont, in the shadow of one of the most industrialized areas of the country, an area of rice farms, cattle ranches and oilfields.
A 1970 Texas Parks and Wildlife Department survey of red wolves, using a hand-cranked air-raid siren on the back of a pickup to elicit howls, found at least 100 wolves, mainly in Jefferson, Chambers and Liberty counties.
Red wolf at the Texas Zoo in Victoria.
The ever-adaptable coyote had been increasingly taking over territory from the shattered red wolf. Red wolves had lost their foothold so badly that they were interbreeding with coyotes. And in the delirium of disaster, the resulting “hybrid swarm” was threatening to overtake the species.
In 1973, Congress passed the Endangered Species Act, and the red wolf was one of the first animals listed. The first goal was to protect the wolves in their remaining territory, and the government started trapping coyotes to prevent the red wolves from being genetically swamped. The effort didn’t work. The wolves were surrounded by an ever-encroaching sea of coyotes.
With time running out, the government took desperate and drastic action: It decided to remove the red wolves and put them in captivity with hopes of reintroducing them into the wild someday. Despite the hope and intent of the Endangered Species Act, wildlife managers decided to make the red wolf extinct in the wild in order to save it.
“It seems like you’re going backward,” says David Rabon, coordinator of the red wolf recovery program for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “You’re given this new piece of legislation to go out there and save the planet, save these species. And one of the first things you do is go: ‘We’ll extirpate them in the wild.’” But, he added, it was the right thing to do.
From 1974 to 1978, more than 400 animals were trapped in the recovery program, established by the Fish and Wildlife Service in cooperation with TPWD. Trappers tromped through the mud and muck, fighting humidity and mosquitoes as they captured wolves, coyotes and hybrids.
Many of the animals were in terrible shape because of parasites and the harsh coastal environment. Every canine that came in was infected with heartworm, a mosquito-carried parasitic worm that spreads through the arteries and ultimately plugs them. Many of the wolves had terrible cases of mange mites, which caused hair loss and severe itching. Some of the infected animals hardly had any fur left.
After they trapped and treated the animals, wildlife managers had to determine which ones were real wolves. When they removed all the wolves they thought were tainted by coyote genes, they were left with 43 animals. After subsequent cullings, just 17 pure red wolves remained. Fourteen of those wolves became the founding members of a captive breeding program and the ancestors of all the red wolves alive today.
It was an inglorious ending for a wild species and an apex predator — trapped in a tiny corner of its former territory, ravaged by parasites, breeding with coyotes and surrounded by interlopers ready to take over. If the government had waited a couple more years to act, it might have been too late. In 1980, with the last red wolves in captivity, the species was declared extinct in the wild.
The coyote is the trickster in Native American lore — clever and highly adaptable. The gray wolf is a cunning, fearsome creature. The red wolf is … what, exactly? The problem was that red wolves had mostly died off before anyone could study them in the wild. The red wolf is somehow considered less “wolfy” than the gray wolf, yet it’s more than just a large coyote. Like other wolves, red wolves live in small packs. They feed on rabbits, raccoons and nutria; they are elusive and generally avoid humans.
The Fish and Wildlife Service considers the red wolf a distinct species, though its taxonomic status isn’t completely clear and debate is ongoing.
“Red wolves, which are big-eared and short-coated, slender, spindly, stilt-legged for coursing through the Southern marshes or under tall forests, have always impressed observers as being rather rudimentary and unemphatic for wolves,” writes Edward Hoagland in his essay “Lament of the Red Wolf.” “Behaviorally they resemble gray wolves; ecologically they are more like coyotes.”
In the canid family, the red wolf seems to suffer from middle child syndrome.
After the red wolf roundup, a captive breeding program was set up at the Point Defiance Zoo in Tacoma, Wash. The breeding program was expanded to zoos across the country, and in Texas, Fossil Rim Wildlife Center in Glen Rose, the Texas Zoo in Victoria and the Fort Worth Zoo have captive red wolves and participate in the program.
After several years, the Fish and Wildlife Service was ready to reintroduce red wolves into the wild.
In an unprecedented move, red wolves were released at Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge in North Carolina in 1987. The refuge, on a peninsula near the Outer Banks, provided an isolated, controlled environment, with few people, plenty of prey and no coyotes. The first years were bumpy, but when it got to the point where wild-born wolves were raising wild-born pups, wildlife managers figured the wolves might just make it.
The red wolf program broke new ground again when it started a program called pup fostering, where captive-born pups are placed in dens with wild litters and raised as wild wolves — an innovation that helped increase the population.
The wild population now clocks in at 100 to 130 animals, with 175 more in captivity. Reintroduction of the red wolf stands as a true conservation triumph — it was the first predator restored after being declared extinct in the wild and paved the way for future wolf reintroductions.
Two issues, however, continue to plague the red wolf recovery. The coyote continued its eastward march and since the mid-1990s has taken up residence near the red wolf. The constant crush of coyotes is like that throbbing headache that won’t go away. Worried about hybridization, wildlife managers have been sterilizing the coyotes and putting them back as placeholders to keep other coyotes out.
Gunshot mortality has been another problem, with seven or eight red wolves killed every year by hunters who mistake them for coyotes.
Texas will have to watch the recovery from afar. Wendy Connally of TPWD’s Wildlife Diversity Program says the agency considers the red wolf extirpated in Texas with no plans for recovery here.
Andrew Sansom, former TPWD executive director, says he led an effort to get red wolves released on Matagorda Island in the 1990s. He liked the idea of having the wolf back near its final stronghold, but federal officials, pointing to the threat of coyotes, thought differently.
Some folks in Southeast Texas still report seeing red wolves or something like them roaming the prairies and marshes of the area. Certainly, some red wolf genes would have been passed down through the years so that a little bit of the red wolf still lives on in the coyotes of the bayou country.
Glynn Riley, a government trapper who witnessed the red wolf’s final days in Texas, sees something wild and majestic in the red wolf. He is known for saying that “a mountain with a wolf on it stands a little taller.”
A mountain without a wolf on it, then, must stand a little shorter, and a state without a wolf, well, will have to settle for the long-faded howls of a misunderstood creature of the night.
What did Texas lose when the red wolves were carried away? Some might say good riddance.
Roy McBride, a legendary trapper who caught red wolves for the recovery program, offers this: “They didn’t leave a heritage. They didn’t leave a building you could look at or dig a big hole or put in a dam. I guess the first rain that came along after the last one was caught washed out his tracks, and that was about the only sign they were ever there. We’ll never have them again.”