While photographing bears in eastern North Carolina, I accidentally became a citizen scientist. A beautiful red wolf crossed a field in the distance, and I snapped a photo before it disappeared into tall grass.

Showing it to officials with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, I learned that this red wolf was one of only 20 estimated to be living in the wild. Eight of them have radio collars used to track animal movement for research. This female wolf’s whereabouts were unknown, because its collar had stopped working in 2019.

My photo helped wildlife officials rediscover a missing link in their decades-long effort to try to save this species.

A feared predator

The red wolf population, once plentiful throughout the Southeastern United States, declined rapidly through the early 1900s. Fears of the mythical “big bad wolf” portrayed in fairy tales and movies had led to lawful killing of the animals.

Listed by the federal government as an endangered species in 1967, red wolves were declared extinct in the wild in 1980.

The shy, mild-mannered red wolf is smaller than the gray wolf of the West, but larger than a coyote. It prefers to avoid people. As an apex predator — one at the top of the “food chain” — it feeds on deer, raccoons, rabbits and rodents. Apex predators keep the ecosystem in check. Without them, their prey populations would soar, decreasing availability of plants and animals down the food chain.

Wolf pups in North Carolina

A captive-breeding program was started in the 1970s with 14 wolves captured from the wild. In 1987, four pairs were released into North Carolina’s Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge, and the next year the first red wolf pups were born there. By 2006, the wild population in North Carolina was more than 130 red wolves.

This success story was short-lived, however. Many red wolves lost their lives through run-ins with cars or when they were shot by people who mistook them for coyotes.

Reversing rapidly declining red wolf numbers is complicated.

Stakeholders — including farmers, landowners, hunters, naturalists and wildlife management officials — often disagree on how or whether to sustain the wild wolf population.

Farmers wonder whether red wolves are dangerous to livestock. Animal rights groups want to ensure that the Endangered Species Act’s rules are being followed. Naturalists want a self-sustaining red wolf population in the wild.

Sometimes government policies change, and conflicting ideas lead to legal challenges. Efforts to compromise stall.

Moving forward

Communication among stakeholders is key.

“We know that there is little tolerance for top predators, so we need to increase understanding of that role,” said Kim Wheeler, executive director of the Red Wolf Coalition, an educational advocacy group in Columbia, North Carolina.

Red wolves can travel 20 miles a day for food, so efforts to protect them require better partnerships between the government and private landowners, Fish and Wildlife Service biologist Joe Madison said.

“Red wolves don’t just stay on refuge property,” he said. “A healthy population requires a much larger land base than the refuge lands in eastern [North Carolina] can provide.”

The captive-breeding program has about 250 red wolves in zoos and wildlife centers across the United States — a backup population for maintaining the species’ reestablished wild populations.

But there has been a pause in releasing captive wolf cubs into the wild. There have been no red wolves born in the wild since 2018. During winter, the Fish and Wildlife Service searches for male and female red wolves that can be paired together to breed, Madison noted.

If competing interests can work together, maybe soon more people will enjoy an unexpected glimpse of a red wolf in the wild or hear its haunting howl.

Recovery plans

How conservationists aim to save the species.

• Encourage private landowners to offer habitat protection for red wolves.

• Educate the public about the differences between red wolves and coyotes.

• Increase the number of breeding pairs of red wolves.

• Lend trail cameras so landowners can monitor wildlife activity on their property.

How can kids help?

• Learn more at the Red Wolf Coalition website: redwolves.com. (Click on “resources” and “Far Traveler.”)

• Do a school project to educate fellow classmates and teachers about red wolves.

• Learn about the Endangered Species Act.

• Visit a zoo or wildlife center that’s part of the red wolf species survival program to see red wolves in person. To find one, go to redwolves.com/newsite/learn-about-red-wolves/captive-breeding-facilities.