When European explorers first reached the New World's wilderness, they found it surprisingly rich in animal life. They must have been surprised to encounter diverse wildlife including alligators, black bears, raccoons, and bison.
One mammal, however, was not a surprise. In fact, this animal had become highly feared following centuries of folklore and myth that produced terrifying stories of human and wolf confrontations. The wolf, as it happens, is native to both Europe and North America, and the mentality that led to its demise in the Old World was easily transplanted by colonists to the New World.
Beginning with the very first settlements, the two eastern species of North American wolves, the gray wolf (Canis lupus) and red wolf (Canis rufus), suffered from methodical attempts to eradicate them. For the red wolf, these attempts were very nearly successful.
At one time, the red wolf was extremely common throughout the Southeast. Its northern range formed a line that extended from central New Jersey to Illinois and Texas. Over the years, bounty-hunting, habitat destruction, and genetic decline through interbreeding with coyotes led to steep decline of the species.
By 1970, it was estimated that fewer than 100 genetically pure wolves remained in a small coastal area on the Texas/Louisiana border.
Biologists predicted total extinction unless drastic measures were taken. A captive- breeding-and-release program resulted in the capture of about 400 wolves, which were then checked for health and genetic purity. Of these, 43 were chosen for the breeding program. Further health problems, hybrid litters, and a lack of proper breeding facilities reduced the number of breeding stock to 14.
Eventually, more than 30 breeding facilities were established, and in 1992 the Western North Carolina Nature Center of Asheville was added as one of these sites. Red wolves are continually relocated to the center for breeding. Adults and pups are then moved from the nature center to national wildlife refuges on the North Carolina, South Carolina, and Florida coasts, as well as in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
The restoration program has met with great success in the coastal areas but limited success in the Smokies. It appears that the animals making up the wolves' dietrabbits, raccoons, and white-tailed deerare more plentiful among coastal forests and wetlands than in the higher elevations of the North Carolina mountains.
Still, wolves are continually being released in some areas in the Great Smokies, and consideration is being given to release programs in Pisgah, Cherokee, and Nantahala national forests as well. While captive-breeding programs will need to be continued indefinitely, the red wolf restoration program has thus far preserved the species from oblivion.
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