In late April, a Red Wolf pup was born at the U. S. Fish & Wildlife Service’s Red Wolf Recovery Program facility in Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge, North Carolina. Born in captivity, the little female was the only surviving pup of her litter. The Red Wolf Recovery Program has taken this opportunity to introduce the pup to a wild litter of pups.
Since 2002, the Red Wolf Recovery Program has been successfully fostering pups into wild litters to help increase the genetic diversity of this critically endangered species. The attempts have been a great success: no wild wolf mother has ever been known to reject a foster pup. The survival rates of fostered pups also seem to be the same as their wild-born littermates’.
The captive-born pup was introduced into a litter of two females. Conservationists worked quickly and carefully to remove all pups from the den while the mother was away. They collected blood samples to keep track of parentage and implanted a microchip in each pup. When the wolves are older, they will be captured for a radio-collar fitting, and a quick scan of the microchip will allow USF&W to identify the wolf without temporarily holding it in captivity. Once the foster pup was masked with the scent of her littermates’ urine, all three were returned to the den to wait for their mother’s return.
There are several factors that can determine the likelihood of successful fostering. Ideally, the pups need to be no older than two-weeks of age at the time of the fostering. During this time, the strong maternal instinct of the mother decreases the likelihood of pup rejection. The pups have limited mobility at this age as well, which ensures they will stay in or nearby the den site and the mother. All the pups need to be similar in age, to reduce any one-sided competition for food. Lastly, a good potential foster mother usually has a relatively low number of pups in her litter, ensuring that she will be able to care for the new addition.
Once common throughout the eastern and south-central United States, Red Wolf populations were decimated by the early part of the 20th century as a result of intensive predator control programs and the degradation and alteration of the species' habitat. The red wolf was designated an endangered species in 1967, and shortly thereafter the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service initiated efforts to conserve the species. Today, more than 100 red wolves roam their native habitats in eastern North Carolina, and nearly 200 red wolves are maintained in captive breeding facilities throughout the United States.