Red wolf in exhibit
Red wolf peering through foliage in exhibit


Zoo scientists have worked with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) and zoo partners on 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. By the late 1970s, the USFWS had 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® (SSP), a collaborative program designed to maintain healthy red wolf populations across AZA-accredited zoos and as a resource for future reintroductions, which 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 continued releases of zoo-born animals helping to build the population. This program is now the Red Wolf Saving Animals From Extinction (SAFE) program, with a primary purpose of recovery in the wild.

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. In addition, the zoo population is too small to be ideal, limiting its ability to support reintroductions. However, after a period in which releases were paused, they are now beginning to occur more frequently.

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 the Center’s 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 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.

In 2021, USFWS created a new Red Wolf Recovery Team and invited researchers in the Alexander Center for Applied Population Biology to join as they developed a new plan for the species. Alexander Center scientists analyzed data from the zoo and wild populations of red wolves and collaborated with scientists from the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Conservation Planning Specialist Group to build a new PVA, which will help USFWS better assess the species long-term viability in North Carolina and at potential new release sites.


Senior Director of Population Ecology
Research Scientist
Alexander Center for Applied Population Biology
Senior Population Biologist
AZA Population Management Center


  • Miller, P.S., A. Parsons, L. Faust, and A. Franklin. 2023. Population viability analysis of the red wolf (Canis rufus): Integrated management of in situ and ex situ populations in support of species recovery in a mixed canid landscape. Final report – 22 August 2023. Apple Valley, MN: IUCN SSC Conservation Planning Specialist Group.
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