Red Wolf Renaissance – Garden & Gun

“That’s what I like to see,” says Chris Lasher, of North Carolina Zoo in Asheboro, as he surveys a seemingly empty wooded enclosure that is home to four red wolves who have scattered as far as the eye can see, disturbed by our presence. “They are red wolves.”

As coordinator of the Species Survival Plan, which cares for 230 red wolves across forty-nine partner organizations, Lasher works to ensure captive red wolves remain as untamed and unacclimated to humans as possible. The ultimate goal: reintroduction into the wild at Alligator River National Wildlife Refugein the swamp forests of northeastern North Carolina.

Red wolves – lithe, red-hued, golden-eyed, and timid – are the only wolves with a historic range entirely within the United States; they once wandered from New York to Texas in family groups of a lifelong bonded pair and their offspring. But human eradication and habitat loss reduced their numbers until they disappeared completely from the wild in 1980.

Using fourteen founding wolves previously taken into captivity, scientists brought them back decades, only to face enough political opposition and restrictions that the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) recovery plan – although succeeded – practically stopped. As of 2020, the wild population in eastern North Carolina has dropped to seven known wolves.

Today, hope is reborn, even if the American canine remains the most threatened wolf in the world. The USFWS has re-engaged in reintroductions, and Lasher has healthy wolves on hand after years of careful genetic matching. In March, biologists were due to release nine individuals, including a family group, into the Alligator River Refuge, a number that doubles the known population and gives the species a chance to regain a foothold in the wild.

Red wolves are not a danger to people, Lasher points out (they avoid us); do not compete with hunters for deer (they eliminate the weak); and if reinstated, would curb the growing numbers of non-native coyotes. “These wolves belong here,” Lasher said. “They are a real benefit to our ecosystems.” He hopes the future will bring more reintroduction and release sites, and continued captive breeding at places like the North Carolina Zoo, which is expanding its breeding and holding spaces for wolves. “One day I want people to walk through the forests of the southeast and hear a red wolf howl,” he says. “I want them to stop, listen and be proud of this magnificent wolf that is uniquely ours.”

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