Two Red Wolves in Durham, N.C. ( B. Bartel/USFWS)

Wolves have a terrible public relations problem that dates back many centuries.

In old fables, they’re constantly up to no good, stalking Little Red Riding Hood and blowing down the houses of the Three Little Pigs. Their storied reputation might explain why people are quick to put a price on their heads for killing livestock or simply showing their faces.

But recently in North Carolina, wildlife biologists flipped the script. They are offering a bounty of sorts for information leading to the capture of whoever who shot to death two rare red wolves.

That species of wolf is one of the world’s most endangered wild canids — a group that includes jackals, coyotes and dogs. The $21,000 reward was raised by animal rights organizations after the dead wolves were found Oct. 28 and Oct. 30 on the flat plains of Washington County, on the central Carolina coast.

Accelerometers pinging in the wolves’ tracking collars informed U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials that the animals’ hearts had stopped beating and led them to the dead bodies. The wolves were among 66 that authorities have tracked since they were old enough to wear collars.

The animals are monitored as part of the government’s Red Wolf Recovery Program, to reestablish them in the Southeast after federally sanctioned bounties nearly wiped them out.

Today, only 90 to 100 live in the wild, and each death is a major blow to the federal government’s effort to restore red wolves in their native habitat.

Authorities said the dead wolves were of breeding age, making their demise especially upsetting since there are too few adults to produce enough litters to reestablish the species.

“When we lose an animal, that obviously has an impact on a very small population,” said David Rabon, recovery coordinator for the Fish and Wildlife program. While there are 90 wolves in the wild, that doesn’t mean 45 of them have coupled. “About 13 pairs are breeding,” Rabon said.

Red wolves were once a lot more common in the Southeast, biologists say. Their numbers were reduced by predator control programs that put prices on the heads of native wolves as people encroached on their range. By the 1960s, they were on the brink of surviving only in zoos and museums.

The Fish and Wildlife Service listed the wolves as endangered in 1967 and frantically attempted to rebuild the population. Seventeen remaining red wolves were captured by biologists, and most went into a program that preserves their gene pool and breeds them.

With no more red wolves in the wild, they were declared extinct in the Southeast in 1980. It took seven years to breed enough of them to start a restoration program on the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge in North Carolina’s rural northeast.

About 100 wolves roam an expanded range that includes three wildlife refuges on nearly 2 million acres. An additional 200 red wolves are in breeding, part of a Species Survival Plan in locations across the United States.

There is another species in North America: the gray wolf, or Canis lupus, with an even more fearsome and, many say, unearned reputation. In an ongoing battle with encroaching ranchers, gray wolves killed more than 250 sheep and about 90 cattle last year in Idaho alone.

In response, hunters in the state killed 330 wolves in 2012, and about 200 in 2011, according to the Agriculture Department.

Red wolves, or Canis rufus, are slimmer and slightly smaller than their gray cousins. They are sometimes mistaken for coyotes, which is problematic because that more plentiful group isn’t native to North Carolina and can be shot any day but Sunday, Rabon said.

Coyotes bow to bigger red wolves. If a red wolf wants a coyote’s territory, it takes it. Adult red wolves weigh up to 80 pounds, stand about 26 inches tall and measure four feet long, from nose to tail. But calling them red is a bit of an overstatement. The wolves “are mostly brown and buff colored with some black along their backs,” according to a Fish and Wildlife description.

Rabon doesn’t know why anyone would want to kill them. There are few documented cases of a healthy wolf or coyote attacking a person, he said.

“We have documented less than a dozen cases where a red wolf took livestock in 27 years,” Rabon said. Most of the time the culprit is man’s best friend — a dog. Or coyotes.

Red wolves eat white-tail deer, rabbits, rats, mice and the invasive nutria, also known as the invasive swamp rat from South America.

On the coastal Carolina plain where the wolves were reintroduced, there are no livestock to protect. The land is planted with corn, soy, wheat, cotton and pine grown on plantations, Rabon said.

Six red wolves were killed this year by gunfire, three were hit by vehicles, and one died by some other circumstance, perhaps caught in a trap, Rabon said. In the three previous years, 21 were shot.

Rabon said the motive could be the fearsome reputation of wolves, spread through fables or stories of gray-wolf hunting packs out West that are strong and smart enough to bring down enormous prey such as bison.

The bounty raised by several organizations, including the Humane Society of the United States, the North Carolina Wildlife Federation and the Center for Biological Diversity, reflects the outrage over the killings.

In a statement, Fish and Wildlife officials hoping to bring them back extolled the red wolf’s good looks. “As their name suggests, red wolves are known for the characteristic reddish color of their fur most apparent behind the ears and along the neck and legs.”