Hey Howdy Time: Breeding the Endangered Red Wolf

March 29th, 2018

With Red Wolf mating season almost over, Director of Wildlife Tish Gailmard explains that it's near impossible to tell whether a female wolf is pregnant until the pups are born. We hope this year brings another litter! Read Tish's explanation below of why Red Wolf breeding is a concern worth your attention as well as different methods for breeding the captive population.

Photo by Bartel/USFWS

The Red Wolf is the most endangered canid in the world. With only 27-35 wild Red Wolves roaming one recovery release site in northeastern North Carolina and 200 in captivity, breeding can be critical to this species’ survival.

Reflection Riding is a breeding and exhibit facility for Red Wolves and has been since its membership in the Red Wolf Species Survival Plan began in 1996. We’ve had litters in 2007, 2011 and 2016.

You might ask what’s the big deal? Why is Red Wolf breeding a concern?

There a few things you need to know.

First of all, we almost lost this species to extinction. In 1980, the Red Wolf was forced into extinction in the wild to conserve the last 17 remaining Red Wolves. Of these 17, only 14 were strong enough to begin a captive breeding program to save this species. That’s a really small gene pool. When you are breeding an endangered species in captivity, it is critical to maintain genetic diversity - we must diversify and grow the family tree. That means hyper vigilance over the breeding co-efficient. We must select Red Wolves to breed that are the least genetically alike. Luckily, science provides the Red Wolf Species Survival Plan (RWSSP) with a software program that tracks each Red Wolf’s pedigree - a road map of who’s closely related and who’s less related. Wouldn’t want to breed siblings, right? The idea is for the family tree to fork! 

Secondly, Red Wolves and coyotes can breed. This causes a serious dilution of genes resulting in hybrid offspring. Hybridization can quickly kill the family tree.

Thirdly, Red Wolves only breed one time per year. Males only produce sperm one time per year and females only go into estrus one time per year.  

So what do we do with all this information?

In captivity, we must determine which Red Wolves will breed based on their genetic value and we have to find a suitable mate - one who is the least related. As an institutional representative and management team member, I attend a summit meeting each summer where we determine who’s going to breed with whom based on the needs of the population. We must determine how many litters need to be produced to maintain or grow the population (whichever is deemed necessary for that breeding season), refer to the mean kinship list ( a measure of importance of an animal. Animals with low mean kinship are genetically important.  Mean kinship is calculated by the kinship (relatedness) of that animal with the entire current population (including itself). Therefore mean kinships per animal are relative to the current population) and begin the process of matchmaking. 

We’ve transferred Red Wolves to breed at our facility from as far away as Sioux Falls, SD. Red Wolves do not fly commercially, so all this travel requires driving or private planes. Usually, two institutions will pick a midpoint to meet and pick up or drop off a Red Wolf. Once the Red Wolf arrives at its new facility, there is usually an acclimation period (we call it a Hey, Howdy! time) where the Red Wolves are separated by fencing and have limited visual sight and physical proximity. After about 1 week of this introduction, the Red Wolves are placed in the same enclosure and with a little luck, (cue the Barry White music) they like each other and the relationship begins.

Red Wolf breeding season is January, February, March with the most northwestern facilities typically breeding last. After a 63 day gestation, pups are born in April and May. Litters can range from 1-9 pups. Eyes and ears open after 2 weeks and pups begin to wander out of the birthing place after about 5 weeks.

In the wild population, we do not engineer the breeding. Red Wolves select their own mates. To prevent Red Wolves from mating with coyotes and producing offspring - creative, out of the box thinking biologists came up with an innovative idea - a first in canid recovery. Sterilize coyotes in the recovery area and put them back on the landscape as place holders. Because this is their territory, they will hold out any fertile coyotes who try to move in and if they breed a Red Wolf, no offspring will occur. Brilliant and very successful! (Unfortunately, this has been halted by the state of North Carolina and US Fish and Wildlife based on a gross misinterpretation of data and inaccurate data- more on that in another entry.)

Another out of the box idea is introducing new genes into the wild population with cross fostering. When wild litters and captive litters are born within a few days of one another, captive pups can be fostered into a wild litter and are accepted by the mother with 100% success. This  genius idea is also a first in canid recovery. (and yes, it too has been halted by North Carolina and USFW). Less politics, more wolves!

In some cases when a genetically valuable Red Wolf has not bred, artificial insemination can be an option. Reflection Riding was fortunate enough to participate in this research. All of our current males have been collected and cryopreserved for future use. The research team that worked on this project consisted of our veterinarian, Dr. Chris Keller and his team from Mountain Hospital for Animals and two post doc students, one from the Smithsonian Conservation Institute and another who was on the team that first developed artificial insemination in dogs.

Luckily, Red Wolves breed fairly well in the wild and in captivity provided they are with the correct mate and are of breeding age. Reflection Riding has been fortunate enough to have successful pairs and hope to produce more litters in the future. As a very involved cooperator in the RWSSP, it’s our duty to support this program and this magnificent species. 

Red Wolves are...beauty, not beast and vital, not vicious.

Posted by Tish Gailmard  | Category: Wildlife

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