The wolf is already moving when Jason Ahistus opens the gate, a gray-orange shadow slipping silently through the brush on long, loping legs. Ahistus steps inside easily, shutting the gate behind him. He moves through the enclosure, checking the den, changing the water dish: furtive movements orbit him, the fact of his presence in the enclosure repelling its occupant as surely as one magnet pushes away another.
“They’re always this shy,” Ahistus says as he comes back toward the fence. Thirty feet behind him, a solemn canine face appears from behind a tree, ears pricked, then withdraws. “Especially the more people there are. Sometimes they stand and look at you as you’re walking up, but you come into the enclosure and they just vanish.”
The wolves are wise to be wary. The American red wolf—maxing out at a petite eighty pounds, with chestnut gray fur on its back, legs and muzzle—once ranged across the southeastern United States, from Central Texas to Florida and Pennsylvania. Now, with 99.7 percent of that territory lost, and fewer than twenty animals remaining in the wild, the red wolf is the most endangered canid in the world. Ahistus is the carnivore curator at Fossil Rim Wildlife Center, a 1,700-acre safari park amid the dramatic bluffs outside Glen Rose. That means it’s his job to help encourage the wolves in his care—oft maligned and with a checkered conservation history—to make more.
The red wolf occupies a biological space between the more familiar gray wolf (big and sociable, tackling large prey) and the coyote (slender, often solitary, and fond of small morsels). For much of its history it ranged in small bands through eastern woodlands, keeping prey populations—among them rabbits, rodents, and young deer—in check.
With the arrival of European settlers, however, the red wolf soon found itself under the gun. According to Regina Mossotti, director of animal care and conservation at the Endangered Wolf Center in Missouri, by the late 1800s red wolves were subject to fearmongering rumors and intensive predator control programs. (There are no modern documented cases of red wolves attacking humans, and the species generally shows little interest in livestock.) By the middle of the twentieth century, poison, traps, and bullets had almost wiped the species out.
The red wolf was among the first animals listed when Congress passed the Endangered Species Act in 1973. Two years later, U.S. Fish and Wildlife enacted the drastic plan of capturing and relocating them all into breeding facilities. Only seventeen of the hundreds of captured canids were deemed to be genetically pure red wolves, and fourteen of those were selected for breeding. “Those wolves were the founder population for our wolves today,” Mossotti says. “That’s about as close to extinction as you can get.”
Beginning in the 1980s, much of the conservation effort was focused on North Carolina, a former part of the red wolf’s territory. In 1984, zoos and federal agencies worked together to release a Species Survival Plan; in 1987, the first captive-bred wolves were released in North Carolina’s Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge. Another major milestone camea year later, when the first wild pups in over a decade were born. By 2005, the wild population numbered 150, with a further 200 red wolves in captivity throughout the country by 2007.
But the reintroduction program faced lingering resistance in North Carolina, particularly as red wolf numbers grew and animals began wandering onto private land. From 1987 to 2013, 95 red wolves were poisoned or shot, a high proportion in a species with such a low wild population. After the Republican takeover of North Carolina in 2010, sustained political lobbying by hunters and landowners led the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission to turn against the wolf releases, and demand that USFWS do the same. The federal agency suspended releases from 2015 to 2019, and went so far as to allow hunting of wolves on private land before being slapped down by a federal judge in 2018. By 2020, the wild population had fallen to fewer than twenty animals nationwide.
Part of the problem was that scientists couldn’t agree on the red wolf’s nature: was the animal a coyote-wolf hybrid, or a distinct species? If the former, anti-wolf activists argued, then it didn’t merit any protection under the Endangered Species Act. The idea of distinct species is scientifically a bit of a red herring: many populations described as separate species often happily interbreed along the frontiers of their range. As red wolves were hunted into near-extinction, remnant wolves mated with the coyotes moving into their former territory, giving rise to handsome hybrid populations like the one found on Galveston Island in 2008. Despite their wolf “ghost genetics,” hybrids receive no official protection; red wolf conservation efforts remain focused on animals that are genetically distinct from coyotes. For those canids, a 2019 report by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine came down heavily in the distinct species column.
By 2015, it was clear that the wolf hunters were at the door. That year, the coalition managing the species’ recovery approached Conservation Centers for Species Survival (C2S2)—an Austin-based nonprofit that coordinates and fundraises for facilities that breed endangered animals—about expanding breeding operations. The goal was to build up a genetically diverse reservoir of captive animals, says Angelina Casillas, programs coordinator at C2S2. “Currently we have about 250 or so wolves in captivity at about 42 centers,” Casillas says. “We need to increase that number to at least 400 to create an insurance population for successful and sustainable releases into the wild.”
But ramping up captive breeding is more easily said than done, Mossotti points out: “A lot of these organizations are small, and building new habitats is a huge ask. It takes a lot of money to be able to do that....We’re not always able to put as many animals together to breed as we need to.” The trick is funding the construction of those habitats. C2S2 managed to land a Fish and Wildlife grant of $257,000 in 2019. Among the six facilities nationwide that received money for new red wolf breeding pens was Fossil Rim. The funds allowed the group to substantially expand its breeding efforts.
Fossil Rim Wildlife Center stretches across rolling pastures and limestone bluffs. When I visited in May, the trees and grasses were lush and blooming with the spring rains. Herds of exotic hoof-stock—many of them endangered, like scimitar-horned oryx and dama gazelles—wandered under early-morning light; cheetahs paced languidly behind fences, ears flat, eyes watchful. Six of the park’s eight red wolves aren’t on public display. To see them, you have to go behind the scenes, down a narrow road that drops with precipitous curves into the Intensive Management Area, a complex hidden behind the hills.
This area is part of Ahistus’s domain, where he helps manage breeding programs for elusive animals like maned wolves and black-footed cats. Originally from northern Wisconsin, Ahistus came to Fossil Rim for an internship in 2005 to work with cheetahs, his first love. But the red wolves are part of what drew him back to work there full time in 2008. “Quite honestly, I didn’t even know what a red wolf was before I got down here,” he says. “And I think that’s a pretty common thing for most people—that’s one of the things that really intrigued me.”
Though Fossil Rim has been involved in the red wolf program since 1989—which marked the return of the animals to Texas soil, if only in captivity—the 2019 grant allowed the group to ramp up its operations, including with the construction of a large pair of connected breeding pens. Since the park entered the program, 31 red wolf pups have been born at Fossil Rim. Historically, Ahistus says, the pens have also served as holding facilities for nonbreeding animals. (They have to go somewhere: red wolves that aren’t currently breeding are too precious to risk releasing, and animals past breeding age are too old to be safely turned loose.) “We are one of the few facilities that can kind of do whatever is asked,” he says as we get out of the car. “If we were just holding animals, we could hold twice as many as we currently have—breeding pairs just need a lot more space.”
Behind dark chain-link fences, the wolf pens are full of thick brush and short, lush grass, worn down with narrow dogtrot trails. Ahistus is carrying breakfast: a mixture of ground horse meat and high-quality kibble in metal dishes. I follow along as he makes the rounds, striding into each enclosure to check it over and drop the food off. The wolves slip around tree trunks, pacing in long loops, keeping the maximum possible space between themselves and Ahistus, pausing now and then to stare uncertainly at me. One—a large, woolly male named Van Gogh—raises his snout to sniff. Then his tail darts between his legs, and he’s gone.
“We try to be as hands-off as possible,” Ahistus says as he pauses behind the fence, picking up an antler on the ground. The wolves are wary of people, which is important for animals that might one day be released into potentially hostile territory. The staff monitors the wolves through game cameras in the enclosures, keeps mowing to a minimum, and doesn’t put out artificial toys, preferring instead scented antlers or balls made of woven sticks. “You’ll see the younger wolves carrying them around,” Ahistus says. “They do have a playful side to them. We just don’t see it very often because they’re so shy.”
The keepers are particularly cautious during the breeding season. There are currently three breeding pairs, each with a pair of five-thousand- to six-thousand-square-foot pens to themselves. Part of Ahistus’s current duties involve checking the dens, doghouses with rooftops that can be flipped up to peer inside. Often the female wolves are in there, staring plaintively up at him until he goes away.
The hope is always to open the roof and find tiny, dark-haired pups suckling. This year, unfortunately, two of the pairs haven’t produced any. Ahistus and another keeper go silently into the newly built third enclosure, communicating through hand signals so as not to spook the potential parents. I wait, watching the male trot back and forth through the brush, reddish fur flashing through gaps in the trees. The two return looking a little downcast. The pups were stillborn, Ahistus says, and the parents did what carnivores generally do in such cases: they ate them. (Nature can be shockingly unsentimental.)
One of the major disadvantages of red wolf conservation is that the species only breeds once a year. “Our whole year revolves around spring and expecting to have good babies,” Ahistus says. “And when it doesn’t happen...” He shakes his head, disappointment written across his face. Then he breathes out, shrugs, and smiles. Sometimes the most you can do is build the space, gather the animals, and wait. The fact that the pair bred at all in their first year is a good sign.
Other facilities in the program have already had some recent successes, Mossotti says: on April 22, Ohio’s Akron Zoo had its first litter of eight pups, four of which were fostered into a wild litter in North Carolina. A week later, four wolves were also released into the wild, the first release directly from managed care in decades.
At Fossil Rim, some of the mated pairs here will probably be switched up to see if a change of partner helps produce pups, Ahistus says. And then next spring will roll around, and they’ll try again. “We did a lot of good things for the program by building a new facility and being able to take on more wolves. And that’s a huge plus,” he says. “Next year, maybe all three of them will probably reproduce and then we’ll have 25 puppies. You just have to keep at it.”