“This is what I like to see,” says Chris Lasher, of the North Carolina Zoo in Asheboro, as he surveys a seemingly empty wooded enclosure that holds four red wolves that have scattered from sight, disturbed by our presence. “They’re being red wolves.”
As the coordinator of the Species Survival Plan, which cares for 230 red wolves across forty-nine partner organizations, Lasher works to ensure that captive red wolves stay as untamed and unacclimated to humans as possible. The ultimate goal: reintroduction into the wild at Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge, in the swampy forests of northeastern North Carolina.
Red wolves—lithe, red-hued, golden-eyed, and shy—are the only wolves with a historic range fully in the United States; they once roamed from New York to Texas in family groups of a bonded-for-life pair and their offspring. But human eradication and habitat loss hacked at their numbers until they disappeared from the wild completely in 1980.
Using fourteen founding wolves taken into captivity before then, scientists brought them back over several decades, only to face enough political opposition and restrictions that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) recovery plan—though proving successful—came to a virtual halt. In 2020, the wild population in Eastern North Carolina fell to seven known wolves.
Today there’s renewed hope, though the American canid remains the most endangered wolf in the world. USFWS has recommitted to reintroductions, and Lasher has healthy wolves at the ready from years of careful genetic matchmaking. In March, biologists were slated to release nine individuals, including one family group, into the Alligator River refuge, a number that doubles the known population and gives the species a chance to regain a toehold in the wild.
Red wolves aren’t a danger to people, Lasher stresses (they avoid us); don’t compete with hunters for deer (they pick off the weak); and if reestablished, would curb growing numbers of non-native coyotes. “These wolves belong here,” Lasher says. “They are a true benefit to our ecosystems.” He hopes the future will bring more reintroductions and release sites, and the continuation of captive breeding at places like the North Carolina Zoo, which is expanding its breeding and holding spaces for wolves. “Someday, I want people to walk Southeastern forests and hear a red wolf howl,” he says. “I want them to stop, listen, and take pride in this magnificent wolf that is uniquely ours.”