Endangered red cubs born at Land Between the Lakes continue to hope for the repopulation of the species


The audio version of this feature was performed on All Things Considered.

With just over 250 red wolves in the world, births are not that frequent and are usually expected, but at Land Between the Lakes (LBL) National Recreation Area in far western Kentucky, 12-year-old Jasper defied expectations by becoming the oldest breeding red wolf on record.

He and companion Ember became parents to four bouncing baby puppies end of April.

LBL chief naturalist John Pollpeter says red wolves were once at the top of the food chain in the southern United States – although they could be found as far west as Texas – and were a familiar sight to residents before the late 1800s. The species is endemic to the area, meaning it could only be found there.

“The red wolf is purely American, but also purely Southern. They were the top predator here at Land Between the Lakes in Kentucky and Tennessee,” he said. “Daniel Boone, Davy Crockett and John James Audubon, when they painted or wrote about a wolf, they were writing about the red wolf.”

Red wolves are the most endangered canines in the world. With only about 20 known specimens in the wild, most are in captivity in facilities across the country.

The species was declared extinct in the wild in 1980. With distinctive reddish-colored fur on its neck and legs, a typical adult red wolf is about four feet long from tip to tail and weighs about 80 pounds, a little bigger than a German Shepherd.

Check out the howling 6 week old puppies

Red Cubs try to howl

DeLene Beeland wrote a book about red wolves hoping it would spark more conversations about saving the country’s only native wolf species. Beeland says of the widespread extermination campaigns, some run by the U.S. government, and habitat loss have been major contributors to the species’ population decline. The species has lost more of its historical territory99.7% – than any other large carnivore. This includes lions, tigers and snow leopards.

“There was a lot of ad hoc pressure on the red wolf, before the government’s predatory campaigns really started. American settlers probably had a lot to do with it,” she said. “There were a lot of ad hoc bounties during the colonization period, for example, that encouraged people to kill mountain lions that were once in the [eastern United States] and bobcats and wolves.

Some experts, like Red Wolf Species Survival Plan coordinator Chris Lasher, link past attitudes toward the red wolf directly to European fairy tales.

“They thought based on all these old stories we hear like little red riding hood and the three little pigs and that sort of thing, that the red wolf was an evil animal that would, you know, attack children and attack pets and kill their livestock. And there is nothing further from the truth.

Lasher works at the North Carolina Zoo in Asheboro. He coordinates with scientists and naturalists across the country to plan red wolf breeding programs and restocking efforts.

North Carolina is home to the only wild population of red wolves since wildlife managers with the Red Wolf Recovery Strategy – which is coordinated by the US Fish and Wildlife Service – began re-issuing them there in 1987.

Beeland thinks the name should be changed to American Red Wolf.

“Most people know that gray wolves are European species that crossed over to North America in what we call a biological invasion…but they didn’t evolve here. And I think that’s a very important distinction. You know, he’s America’s red wolf, and we have to save him.

To release more red wolves into the wild, Lasher says greater genetic diversity and a larger population base are needed. That means more captive wolves in places like zoos and recreation areas.

“We need a minimum of 330 animals in human care to be able to provide animals to multiple recovery sites,” he said. “At the moment we only have room for about 260 animals in human care.”

Pollpeter says puppies born at LBL will stay with their parents and siblings for at least 18 months. He hopes to hold a naming contest for young wolves this fall on social media.

After that time, Pollpeter says, the wolves will likely be transferred to a zoo to be part of a breeding program or begin training for release into the North Carolina wilderness.

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