Saving Red Wolves with Amazing Foster Den Families

After disappearing from the wild and being carefully reintroduced and conserved, only 90-100 endangered red wolves live in the wild in the entire world. They now make their homes in the forests and marshes of eastern North Carolina where an amazing program is helping the species recover through a foster family program.

Endangered red wolf in the wild in eastern North Carolina.  Photo by Rebecca Bose/USFWS

Endangered red wolf in the wild in eastern North Carolina. Photo by Rebecca Bose/USFWS

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is committed to helping red wolves in the wild recover—and through the Red Wolf Recovery Program, a few pups born in captivity every year are placed in dens to be fostered by wild parents.  The pups are usually embraced by their new parents, learn to survive in their natural habitat and eventually go off to have their own families.  Here’s the surprising and amazing way it works:

In the Spring, wildlife experts go out in search of breeding pairs and keep close tabs on them, watching for the exact day when the litter is born, usually sometime in April or May. After the mother has her pups, it’s time  to search for the den site—which is tricky and can take some real skill as she will have multiple dens to help keep the pups hidden. If she’s spooked or senses the pups have been discovered, she moves them out of the den and the search starts all over again.

Photo DJ Sharp USFWS

Red wolf pups. Photo by DJ Sharp/USFWS

Now if the wildlife experts can get close enough to the den in the wild, they count the pups. If the litter is small, two or three pups, and their eyes are not yet open– the litter is a great candidate for foster pups. The only way this will work is if there is a donor captive litter that is close in age by a few days and also sufficient in size  so that removing one or two pups for placement in the wild will not decrease the litter too much.

Then one or two of the captive born pups are carefully moved to the new foster den in the wild, but it must be done quickly as they should not be without a mother for more than 24 hours.

Red Wolf Den

Red wolf den in the wild. Photo by R. Nordsven/USFWS

The wild pups are stimulated to urinate on new pups so they will have the scent of the wild litter. When the mother comes back, she accepts them and raises them as if they are her own.

More than half of the captive born pups fostered in the wild since the program started in 2002 have survived and in the last couple of years, many have gone on to have pups of their own. A great success story!

Part of this success may be due to the strong family ties red wolf breeding pairs have in the wild.  They typically stay together for life and have new litters together every year.  And often older sibling offspring from the previous year will stick around with the family and help feed and raise the new pups.

Photo: USFWS

Red wolves in the wild are cooperative breeders – sibling offspring from the previous year will stick around and help raise new pups. Photo USFWS.

One of the wildlife experts leading the fostering program said, ” The stars have to align just right for this to work.” And thankfully, the Red Wolf Recovery Program has been working wonderfully.

But the endangered red wolves’ recovery is threatened by poachers who are breaking the law and hunting down the red wolf in the wild.  Together with the North Carolina Wildlife Federation and other partner organizations, National Wildlife Federation is offering a combined reward of $33,000 for any information that leads to the arrest and conviction of a red wolf poacher.   We’re also helping to build support for saving the species so the protection and conservation of red wolves in the wild continues.  Please join us in the fight to save red wolves and their amazing foster den families.

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