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Red Wolf Myths and Facts

As part of our work to protect red wolves in the eastern U.S., our Red Wolf Campaign seeks to dispel the myth that red wolves are dangerous predators not worth saving. Some of these myths are perpetuated by political entities, including the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS)—the government agency whose mission is to protect endangered wildlife. Other myths have spread in recent years thanks to an aggressive spin campaign initiated by a local real estate developer.

We assembled the following list of common misconceptions about red wolves and the contrary realities. These myths represent just some of the barriers to red wolf recovery.

Myth: The red wolf was never native to North Carolina.

Reality: We know wolves historically inhabited North Carolina, and the available evidence strongly suggests these wolves were a subspecies of red wolf.

Since 1987, red wolves have roamed free in eastern North Carolina and have never hurt anyone.

  • There are colonial records of wolf bounties paid from North Carolina, plus early naturalist observations from around the Southeast confirming the presence of wolves (e.g., William Bartram, John James Audubon).
  • Researchers have confirmed skeletal evidence of red wolf-sized animals in adjacent states (Nowak 2002, Southeastern Naturalist). At the same time, they have found no modern gray wolf-sized skeletal remains in the red wolf range.

Myth: The red wolf is nothing but a gray wolf/coyote hybrid, and the latest research shows there is only one true wolf in North America.

Reality: Recent genetic research has confirmed the red wolf appears to be a unique species.

  • Ancient DNA samples from the eastern U.S. were not of gray wolf origin (Brzeski et al. 2016, Journal of Heredity).
  • There is a lack of evidence of gray wolves breeding with coyotes in the West (Rutledge et al. 2012, Biological Conservation).
  • Biologists have difficulty cross-breeding gray wolves and coyotes even in captivity (Mech et al. 2014, PLOS One).
  • Available genetic data continue to fit a three-species model (Rutledge et al. 2015, Biology Letters).
  • Genetic tests have been able to distinguish red wolves from coyotes since ~2000 (Adams et al. 2003, Molecular Ecology).
  • A controversial “one true wolf” paper from vonHoldt et al. (2016) fails to distinguish between evidence for common ancestry versus evidence for hybridization with respect to red wolves, eastern wolves, and coyotes, and contains other serious errors (Hohenlohe et al. 2017, Science Advances).
  • In 2016, a group of scientists convened by the FWS to discuss red wolf genetics reached the consensus conclusion that, whatever the origin of the red wolf, the animal as it exists now is definitely unique and distinct enough to be a listable entity under the Endangered Species Act (Waples et al. 2018, Journal of Heredity).
A wolf walks along a path.
A red wolf is photographed by a remote camera deployed by Wildlands Network. Photo: Ron Sutherland

Myth: The red wolf is proven to be 78% coyote.

Reality: This erroneous claim is based on gross misrepresentations of a 2011 paper by vonHoldt et al. that has since been rebutted by several other publications.

  • The vonHoldt et al. (2011) paper did not allow for common ancestry (Rutledge et al. 2012, Biological Conservation; Wilson et al. 2012, Ecology and Evolution).
  • vonHoldt simply assigned the red wolf’s genes to coyote or gray wolf origin; there was no third species option for the red wolf’s genes to be assigned to a “red wolf” origin. In other words, there was no way under that test for the red wolf to look like anything other than a hybrid!

Myth: The red wolf was real, but its preservation in the wild is a hopeless case now that the coyote has taken over its former range.

Reality: The coyote management program put in place by FWS was actually working surprisingly well at limiting hybridization between the two species.

A brownish wolf standing and facing the photographer.
Red wolf at Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium in Tacoma, Washington. Photo: John Froschauer
  • Hybrids continue to be rare on the landscape (<4%), as revealed by genetic surveys (Bohling et al. 2016, Evolutionary Applications).
  • Hybridization events were most often the result of wolves being shot immediately before breeding season (Hinton et al. 2015, Oryx).
  • Prior to the recent increase in gunshot mortality, the red wolf population was growing well and pushing out coyotes (Gese et al. 2015, Current Zoology).
  • Deer are now much more abundant than in the 1970s, so larger wolves have more food to eat and a greater competitive advantage over coyotes.
  • When Eastern wolves (which may be the same species as red wolves) were protected from poaching and trapping in Canada, they rebounded and reduced their hybridization with coyotes (Rutledge et al. 2012, Ecology and Evolution).

Myth: With coyotes around, we don’t need red wolves anymore. The niche has been filled.

Reality: There is no evidence at present that coyotes are adequately controlling deer or raccoon populations.

  • Most coyotes weigh only 20 to 30 pounds.
  • We’ve seen no firm evidence that coyotes are bringing deer or raccoon populations under control in the eastern U.S.
  • Many, many years may be required for coyote-wolf hybrids to evolve to fill the niche of the red wolf.
A Wolf walks along the side of a gravel path. It looks toward the camera
A red wolf walks by a Wildlands Network camera trap. Photo: Ron Sutherland

Myth: The red wolf and coyote have inflicted the greatest wildlife disaster in the history of North Carolina.

Reality: The Red Wolf Recovery Area continues to support robust populations of deer, turkey, and other wildlife. In fact, this region provides some of the foremost wildlife viewing opportunities in the eastern U.S.

The Red Wolf Recovery Area continues to support robust populations of deer, wild turkeys, and other wildlife.

  • Deer and turkey harvests are stable across the state of North Carolina (NC Wildlife Resources Commission data).
  • Deer harvests in the Red Wolf Recovery Area have increased since the red wolf was reintroduced (NC Wildlife Resources Commission data).
  • Deer are still considered abundant enough to be serious crop pests in the Red Wolf Recovery Area, and farmers continue to receive permits to shoot deer out of season to reduce their numbers (NC Wildlife Resources Commission data).
  • Alligator River and Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuges are famous for hosting tremendous wildlife spectacles, including those of black bears, snow geese, and tundra swans.
  • Wildlands Network has deployed 24 cameras in the Red Wolf Recovery Area to-date, and we’ve uploaded all of our animal photos for the public to see: www.flickr.com/photos/redwolfreality/albums.

Myth: FWS needs to end the program since they promised red wolves would be contained on wildlife refuges.

Reality: Red wolves have been using private land in eastern North Carolina for 27 years. Until the current FWS leadership began to intentionally undermine their own recovery program, the agency stood by its position that it has the legal authority to allow the wolf population to expand and prosper.

A red wolf looks directly at the camera. Behind it, green grass, trees, and bushes are visible.
Red wolf. Photo: B. Bartel, USFWS
  • In the early 1990s, FWS reached agreements with numerous landowners to retain wolves on their private land.
  • Federal code was updated in 1995 to allow red wolves to remain on private property if the landowner didn’t object (FR[60]8940-18948).
  • Landowner tolerance can be increased again if FWS resumes outreach efforts and crafts a landowner incentive program.

Myth: Red wolves might be dangerous, and we can’t risk them attacking anyone’s kids.

Reality:

  • Since 1987, red wolves have roamed free in eastern North Carolina and have never hurt anyone.
  • Red wolves are extremely shy and timid animals.
  • Overabundant white-tailed deer actually do injure thousands of people in North Carolina annually, due to ~20,000 collisions with vehicles each year (NC Department of Transportation Highway Safety data).
  • Reintroducing more carnivores like red wolves and cougars could save lives and reduce property damage (Gilbert et al. 2016, Conservation Letters).

Myth: The world has changed, and there’s no room for top carnivores in the crowded Eastern landscape anymore—look at all of the roads and people.

Reality: As demonstrated by the recent expansions of black bears and coyotes, the rural landscapes of the East Coast continue to be wild enough to support populations of wide-ranging mammals, including red wolves.

  • Black bears are expanding their range in North Carolina.
  • Cougars survive on the outskirts of Los Angeles—and occasionally disperse all the way from the Dakotas to Connecticut!
  • Deer, wild turkeys, elk, and beavers have all recovered from the brink of extinction since 1900, so now we need to return the predators.
  • 10,000+ elk live in eastern Kentucky today!

Myth: We can pull the wild red wolves from North Carolina and keep the species safe in zoos.

Reality: As beneficial as zoos and wildlife centers have been for rescuing the red wolf from immediate extinction, they simply do not have the capacity to protect captive red wolves from the genetic erosion that will result from living and breeding in caged environments for too many generations.

Close-up of gray, white, and tan dog-like animal with tongue hanging out.
Red wolf, Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge. Photo: USFWS
  • Each generation of captive red wolves will become more and more adapted to living in captivity, not in the wild.
  • FWS promised to return the species to the wild when they captured the last few red wolves in Texas and brought them into captivity.
  • The wild red wolf population in eastern North Carolina is essential to the survival of the species. Without it, there is no hope in the future for returning red wolves to the wild.

Myth: The captive red wolf population is in immediate danger of extinction and should therefore take priority.

Reality: Despite absurd claims by the FWS at a 2016 press conference that the captive red wolf population faces a dire threat of extinction, a Population Viability Analysis (PVA) study paid for by the FWS revealed that captive red wolves face only a 0.5% chance of extinction over the next 125 years.

  • Some scientists asserted that even this low risk of extinction (<1%!) was an overestimate, as zoo facilities would surely respond to any decline in the captive red wolf population (PVA scientists’ letter to the FWS, 2016).
  • At present, the captive red wolf population is limited by available breeding pens for the wolves.
  • The wild red wolf population, on the other hand, is facing an urgent risk of extinction, with the population dropping at a precipitous rate since 2012.

Myth: People don’t support red wolf recovery—particularly people who live in the Red Wolf Recovery Area in eastern North Carolina.

Reality: In July 2016, conservation groups delivered a petition, signed by half a million people from across the U.S. and around the world, calling on the FWS to save the Red Wolf Recovery Program. In August 2016, a new poll revealed that a strong majority of people in North Carolina support red wolf recovery.

Two wolves on a night camera are visible. One looks to the side, while one looks directly at the camera.
Red wolves at night. Photo: Ron Sutherland.
  • 73% of people in North Carolina and 60% of people on the Albemarle Peninsula support red wolf recovery, according to a recent poll (Tulchin Research, 2016).
  • 120,000 people emailed FWS in 2014 in support of red wolves (and then the agency lost more than half its emails; Wildlife Management Institute Report, 2014).
  • In August 2016, successful rallies on behalf of red wolves were held in Little Washington, North Carolina (within the recovery area), Raleigh, and Chapel Hill.
  • In 2017, FWS received 55,087 public comments concerning the future scope of the red wolf program, and 54,992 of them were in favor of doing more to save the red wolf. That’s 99.8% of the comments!