With that tiny wolf pup looking all adorable up there, you'd be forgiven for thinking this post is just about bringing you a few mid-week awws. Not so. Sure, the cuteness is undeniable, but this story is all about conservation. The pup pictured is no ordinary wolf – and it's also one you may not have heard of. While its grey cousins get a fair bit of attention, the red wolf (Canis rufus) seems confined to the shadows, despite being one of the world's most endangered canids. In fact, the species is only just clinging to survival thanks to a pioneering captive-breeding programme – a programme that is now under threat.  

red wolf distribution map_2014_07_23
A map of the red wolf's range in the US, past and present. Based on information from Joseph W. Hinton et al. 2013.

First, a bit of backstory. The red wolf (also known as the Florida wolf or Mississippi Valley wolf) once roamed all across the eastern US, but its numbers declined drastically with European settlement. Once humans had the wolves in their sights, they didn't relent until populations teetered on the brink of extinction: by the 1970s, only around 100 individuals survived, confined to the southern border of Texas and Louisiana. 

In an 11th-hour attempt to save the wolves, the US Fish and Wildlife Service (UFWS) stepped in with a plan that had never been tried before to pull a species back from the edge: they rounded up the last remaining wolves (effectively rendering the species extinct in the wild) and placed them in a captive-breeding programme. With loss of habitat, inbreeding with coyotes and that persistent human threat hanging over its head in the wild, saving the red wolf in captivity seemed like the safer bet. 

The Red Wolf Recovery Program was tasked with capturing as many wolves as possible, in the hope of re-establishing wild populations at some point in the future. It became the very last repository for the red wolf genome.

To 'rebuild' the species, 14 red wolf pioneers with just the right genetic makeup – pure and 'coyote-free' – were eventually selected for breeding. Luckily, the unprecedented strategy paid off. The wolves bred successfully in captivity and the first captive-born litters emerged in 1977. A decade later, the USFWS was ready to release a few wolves (four male-female pairs) onto a carefully selected site: the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge (ARNWR) in North Carolina.

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The new red wolf pup sticks close to mom. There are now 40 breeding facilities like the one at Land Between the Lakes across the US. Image: Brooke Gilley.

Fast forward to the present, and breeding facilities now total 40, with around 250-300 red wolves in captivity and in the wild – which brings us back to the adorable wolf pup we started with. 

The youngster, who made her appearance back in May at the Woodlands Nature Station in Kentucky's Land Between The Lakes protected area, is a direct descendent of those first wolf pioneers. Woodlands has been involved with the recovery programme since 1991, and its wolf pair was one of seven selected to have puppies this year. 

"She is currently very shy ... always following mom. She has an awnry streak to her, too, as she will often steal the choice bits of meat from mom and dad," says the centre's lead naturalist John Pollpeter of the new arrival.  

Despite breeding successes like this one across the US, the fate of red wolves looks uncertain. Last month, US Fish and Wildlife was asked to review its red wolf programme at the North Carolina reintroduction site, where wolf territory set aside in the 1980s has been significantly expanded and where about 100 of the predators now roam. The agency agreed to "determine the appropriateness of continuing the experimental program" following questions about whether a self-sustaining wolf population can be established. 

The wolf's return to the North Carolina wilderness has been plagued by some familiar problems, including interbreeding threats from rapidly encroaching coyotes and opposition from local landowners, who see the wolves as a threat to domestic animals and a negative influence on the land (which can have some grim consequences).    

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The youngster gets a weigh-in at three weeks. She'll remain at the centre for some time before moving on to start her own pack. Image: Brooke Gilley

Pollpeter is all too aware of some of these challenges. "In a larger sense, there is not enough space in zoos and in the wild [where] we can release them ... due to the new coyote populations and the growing human population. On a smaller scale, we are concerned about any genetic issues that may pop up with the [new] puppy. The orginal population was about 14 individual animals – that is a small gene pool," he admits.

So what does all this mean for the new Woodlands wolf? Red wolves make good adoptive parents so captive-born pups are sometimes fostered into wild litters, but that will not be the case here. For now, the youngster is growing up happily in the care of her parents, but that will change in about 18 months or so.

"[Fostering] has to be done when pups are very young. She is already too old for that programme. The wild population had 19 pups this year, so she will go to another zoo or nature centre to start her own pack," Pollpeter explains. 

Despite all the challenges, Pollpeter remains optimistic about the future of the wolves – and he's convinced of the value of preserving a species he sees as an icon of the American South. "From Kentucky to Florida, Texas to Virginia, this is truly a southern wolf – found nowhere else in the world and perfectly adapted to living in the southern hardwood forests."

"I feel very fortunate to be part of the effort to bring a unique species back from the brink, even just our small part," he says. 

To support red wolf recovery efforts check out the Red Wolf Coalition or Friends of Red Wolf. More pics of the new pup await here.

Reference: Joseph W. Hinton, Michael J. Chamberlain, David R. Rabon Jr.Red Wolf (Canis rufus) Recovery: A Review with Suggestions for Future Research. Animals 2013, 3(3), 722-744; doi:10.3390/ani3030722