The red wolf (Canis rufus) is considered a distinct species from the gray wolf (Canis lupus), which is more widespread throughout North America, Europe, and Asia. The red wolf is slightly smaller in stature. Its diet consists of small prey such as raccoons, rabbits, squirrels, and nutria.

Red wolves once roamed a large swath of the United States. Evidence from historical reports and scientific research tells us their historical range stretched from Texas to the Gulf Coast, to the Atlantic shores of the southeastern United States, and up to the northeast in Pennsylvania. Over time, their population numbers in the wild were greatly reduced through loss of habitat from human development, hunting, and predator control programs initiated by the government. By 1980, they were believed to be extinct in the wild.

Although gone from the wild, the red wolf was not extinct and lived on in captive-breeding programs. In 1987, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service led a reintroduction program to reestablish red wolves in the wild. They selected sites in eastern North Carolina since suitable wolf habitat was preserved there through the system of National Wildlife Refuges. It is estimated there are more than 50 red wolves in the wild in North Carolina and more in captive-breeding programs around the country, including this red wolf photographed for the Photo Ark project at the Great Plains Zoo in South Dakota.  

In North Carolina, there is a chance it may breed with another canid species, the coyote (Canis latrans). Canidaes including grey wolves, red wolves, coyotes, and even domestic dogs are able to interbreed, and there is some scientific debate about the uniqueness of different species, which is determined through genetics and morphology. This potential hybridization of coyotes and red wolves in North Carolina has presented challenges to the reintroduction program and added to the debate about the situation between those who believe the red wolf should roam free in the wild, and others who disagree.

  1. What role do red wolves play in a natural ecosystem?

    • Answer

      As a top predator, the red wolves are at the top of the food chain. Within the natural ecosystem, red wolves prey on smaller mammals, helping to maintain population numbers of these species that are healthy for the ecosystem.

  2. What do scientists focus on when classifying different animals as distinct species?

    • Answer

      The way that scientists identify and classify different species has changed over time. This branch of science is called taxonomy. Scientists take into account genetics and morphology.  

  3. How do humans continue to use natural resources in a way that is in conflict with the long-term survival of wildlife species? How can we use natural resources in a way that meets the needs of humans and wild animals?

    • Answer

      People have been using land in a way that is in conflict with the health and well-being of wild animals for thousands of years. Currently, humans in many parts of the world continue to use land and water to extract minerals and fossil fuels; to construct transportation infrastructure, residential, commercial, and industrial infrastructure (e.g., homes, stores, factories, power plants); and to farm and raise livestock. We can meet the needs of humans and wild animals by being smart about the way we use natural resources. We have to continue to better understand the needs of the many species of animals we share the land and water with and design our agriculture, transport, industrial, and other systems in a way that takes human and wildlife needs into account.


family of mammals that includes dogs, wolves, and foxes.


wild animal, related to a wolf, native to North America.


having to do with policies or issues within a nation.


no longer existing.


the study of heredity, or how characteristics are passed down from one generation to the next.

grey wolf

mammal related to the dog.

hybrid species

offspring of two organisms of different breeds, varieties, species, or genera.


to reproduce with members of a closed population (where genetic material from outside groups is excluded.) Or, to breed with members of another breed or group.


study of the form and structure of organisms or materials.


large rodent native to South America. Also called the coypu.


animal that hunts other animals for food.