The Red Wolf Experience has left a lasting legacy in the Smokies


A failed attempt to reintroduce red wolves to the Great Smoky Mountains left a lasting legacy in the park and raised awareness of the critically endangered species.

Knoxville, Tenn. – If you count all the red wolves in the world, you’ll find almost four percent of the total population in a fenced enclosure at the Knoxville Zoo.

“Unfortunately the outlook is pretty bleak at this point. We only have about 25 left in the wild at the moment. There are about 250 in managed care and we have 10 at the Knoxville Zoo. Zoos are maintaining this population alive,” said Kelly Cox, assistant director of animal care at the Knoxville Zoo.

The critically endangered species is known as the “American wolf” because it is the only species that lived entirely within the borders of the United States without extending into Canada or Mexico.

“Most people don’t know there’s ever been a red wolf on the landscape. We’ve got a habitat set up for them here that’s out of the way. This is done by design because red wolves don’t “They’re not those vicious wolves that we describe them. They’re very secretive and very shy, so it was imperative to give them a place to hide and blend in with their natural environment,” Cox said.

One of the main reasons red wolves were nearly eradicated is because governments put bounties on the animals’ heads. For decades bounties have been paid to kill a predator that has harmed farms and made farmers see red.

The United States Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) placed the red wolf on its endangered species list in 1967. In 1980, it took the drastic step of capturing all remaining red wolves from the wild in Texas and Louisiana. to breed them in captivity.

When red wolf numbers were bolstered through captive breeding, the first family was released into the wild in 1987 along the North Carolina coast.

In 1991, the Red Wolf Rescue Program found another place to try to let them roam free.

A retired wildlife biologist, Kim Delozier has helped reintroduce several species to Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

“The Fish and Wildlife Service actually contacted us about using the Smokies as a place to try to restore the red wolves. It was reintroducing a top predator to the ecosystem,” Delozier said.

The first family of red wolves was released from a large cage and into the wild of the Great Smoky Mountains in November 1991. Two more families were released in 1992 at Cades Cove and Tremont.

Not everyone celebrated the return of a renowned hunter.

“A lot of people were skeptical about the wolves coming. I think the farmers were worried and they should have been. It was amazing to see how the wolves operated. There was a cow with a new calf. born, and one of the wolves would come up and start fighting the cow. The other wolf would spin behind and grab the calf and fly away with it. So they’re very smart,” Delozier said.

For all the deer and other prey inside the national park, that wasn’t enough to feed families of wolves. Many animals have ventured outside the park in search of food.

“A lot of these animals left the park and went out and caused trouble,” Delozier said.

A woman traveled more than 40 miles outside the national park and was found in the Holston Hills neighborhood of North Knoxville.

“When I see a snake, I take a shovel and leave it to him. I don’t know what I would do with a wolf,” one Holston Hills resident joked in 1996.

“When you talk about large mammals like wolves, elk and bears, this park is not big enough to have an isolated, self-sustaining population right inside the park. When they leave the park, there are often conflicts with landowners,” Bill said. Stiver, GSMNP supervising wildlife biologist.

Several wolves that left the park were killed or died of unknown causes. One was poisoned while drinking antifreeze under a vehicle in Blount County.

The real life-and-death struggle was not based on keeping animals within park boundaries. It was the inability to keep new litters alive.


About 40 Red Cubs were born in the wild in the Great Smoky Mountains. None of them survived.

“The wolves would mate. They would have cubs. The cubs would die from the parvo virus. When you don’t have reproduction, you can’t have a population,” Stiver said.

The red wolf struggled with disease and starvation. Its reintroduction also coincided with the arrival of a wily competitor.

“We had coyotes moving into the park in the early to mid-1980s. When they first introduced red wolves, the coyote population was relatively small,” Delozier said.

But the coyotes continued to grow and compete directly with the red wolves for food. The coyote also threatened to contaminate the endangered gene pool.

“Because there were few red wolves, there was some hybridization. They interbred with coyotes. said Delozier.

In 1998, the Fish and Wildlife Service announced that it would end the red wolf experiment in the Great Smoky Mountains. All but one of the wolves released into the park with radio collars were recaptured.

The red wolf experiment in the Smokies failed. But the park learned lessons that had a lasting impact. Specifically, the experience with red wolves helped park officials know how to gain public support for the 2001 elk reintroduction.

“I think what we learned from the Red Wolves at least was process. With the Red Wolves, there were public meetings where people would come out to voice their objections to things unrelated to the government. We We didn’t just have public meetings and hope people would show up. We met with groups directly and let them know about our plan,” Delozier said.

“We can’t manage wildlife in a bottle inside the national park. The biggest thing I’ve learned is how important it is to work with our neighbors,” Stiver said.

There is another lasting legacy of the Red Wolf program in the Smokies. Some people often claim to see coyotes that look a lot like red wolves.

“Every year people call me and think they’ve seen a red wolf. We know that red wolves and coyotes used to mate. Could there be wolf genes there? It’s possible, but probably not after 20 years,” Stiver said.

“People see coyotes that have a reddish tint or a reddish color. These are probably not persistent red wolf genes. They probably come from wild dogs breeding with coyotes. When these coyotes breed with wild dogs, they can be solid black, solid red, gray and a mix,” Delozier said.

Even if persistent genes exist, they are diluted with each generation and practically disappear.

The real effort to preserve red wolf genetics lies with approximately 25 wild red wolves in eastern North Carolina as well as wolves managed at facilities like the Knoxville Zoo.

Cox said people in East Tennessee often get excited about red wolves.

“I think through the Smokies project he brought a knowledge of red wolves here and an appreciation for red wolves perhaps more than in other places,” Cox said. “Our red cub who was born in 2016, he was just a superstar.”

Another healthy litter of eight pups was born at the zoo in 2018. Some will likely move on to other zoos to breed and keep struggling species alive, and perhaps help return the call of the red wolf. in nature.

“I think that’s the most important thing for people to know. There are red wolves out there and they need your help. Because once they’re gone, that’s the end of it. And that It’s a sad day for all of us,” Cox said.

Related: June 2018 – Update! 8 very rare red cubs at the Knoxville Zoo are doing well!

Related: June 2016 – Knoxville Zoo Names Red Cub

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