Modeling Red Wolf Recovery (2013-2019)
Zoo scientists built models to guide the recovery of one of the most endangered canine species in the world: the red wolf.
The red wolf, which once roamed the southeastern United States, is now one of the most endangered canids in the world. Habitat loss and hunting drove this predator to the brink of extinction, and by the late 1970s, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) determined that preserving the species in the wild was not feasible.
The agency partnered with the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) to establish a zoo population through the Red Wolf Species Survival Plan®, a collaborative program designed to maintain healthy red wolf populations across AZA-accredited zoos and as a resource for future reintroductions, that would hopefully save the species. By 1987, the zoo population had grown from fewer than 20 wolves to more than 70, and managers began a reintroduction program, releasing the first wolves to a peninsula in eastern North Carolina. The wolves have successfully established packs and reproduced in the wild, with the continued releases of zoo-born animals helping to build the new population.
The North Carolina population of red wolves faces serious conservation challenges. Negative public perception and human-associated mortalities from gunshots and vehicle strikes have stagnated the growth of the wild population, and releases are occurring infrequently. In addition, the zoo population is smaller than ideal, limiting its ability to support reintroductions.
Unsure of the future of the species, the Red Wolf Recovery Program approached researchers at the Alexander Center for Applied Population Biology and the AZA Population Management Center in 2013 about becoming involved in the science of red wolf recovery. In particular, they were interested in applying our expertise in population viability analyses (PVAs) to help guide the combined management of the zoo and reintroduction populations.
In collaboration with the USFWS and the Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium, zoo researchers built PVA computer models to look at the viability and assess current and alternate management strategies for red wolves. The results of these models were used by USFWS in species reviews and decision-making about the long-term future for the Red Wolf SSP and the wild population. Red wolf conservation strategy continues to evolve, and the models can be used in the future to evaluate new management strategies as they are developed.