Formerly, the red wolf population spanned forests, prairies and swamplands from Pennsylvania to Florida and west to Texas. While red wolf numbers were once high, they've steadily declined for a number of reasons, and today these canids are endangered. In the 1980s, red wolves were declared extinct in the wild, but breeding programs brought them back from the brink of disappearance. Their population is still not secure, with only somewhere around 80 to 100 living in the wild in a highly localized area.
The red wolf population suffered greatly at the hands of hunters. While they're now protected by endangered species status -- though illegal hunting is always a concern -- for a long time these predators were hunted indiscriminately. Their furs were attractive to some people, while others hunted red wolves purely for sport. They were also hunted as part of predator control programs, which entail protecting pets and livestock by killing off indigenous predators, like red wolves.
As land was converted for agricultural purposes in the red wolf's natural territory, it became increasingly unsuitable for supporting the canid's population. Farmland and grazing fields don't provide shelter for red wolves to live and breed in. Farmers also take steps to eliminate rabbits, rodents, deer, insects and other "pests" that are staples of the red wolf's diet; often, naturally occurring berries and other fruits red wolves eat are cleared away, too. Farmers who depend on chickens and other animals for their livelihood are among those most likely to have taken part in predator control programs targeting red wolves, too.
Human development devastated many animal populations, as was the case with red wolves. Their habitats were continuously cleared away, and houses, roads, parking lots, commercial construction and other human development took their place. The results are the same -- and often even more profound -- as with agriculture: red wolves gradually lost more and more suitable spaces for dens and dwelling, and it became increasingly difficult for them to find enough sustenance to live and feed their offspring. Logging has also stripped away some of the forests red wolves once called home.
In 1980, the US Fish and Wildlife Service set about saving red wolves from extinction. The organization took 20 red wolves into captivity for breeding. That number grew to a little more than 200 in captivity, spread out among about 40 breeding facilities in the US. Because of widespread human occupancy and development, opportunities for releasing red wolves into the wild to reestablish natural populations is difficult. In northeastern North Carolina, a 1.7-million-acre, five-county area is currently designated the red wolf recovery zone. This is now the only place where wild red wolf populations live.
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