Archived Outdoors

Study reveals the red wolf’s ecological impact

According to a study published last month in the scientific journal Animal Conservation, wild red wolves in eastern North Carolina had a significant ecological impact prior to their dramatic decline in recent years. 

The study tracked wildlife detection rates from 2015 to 2021 using dozens of motion-activated camera traps in the Alligator River and Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuges, the core of the red wolf recovery area.

Results showed that after the red wolf population crashed from poaching, populations of game species like white-tailed deer and wild turkey stayed about the same, but populations of predators like raccoons, opossums, bobcats and bears increased significantly. For example, the raccoon detection rate doubled from 2018 to 2021 as wolf numbers declined. 

“This study is important for two big reasons: First, we’ve been able to dispel the rumors that red wolves cause a significant collapse in deer populations,” said Dr. Ron Sutherland, Wildlands Network’s Chief Scientist who initiated the research back in 2015. “There were still plenty of deer at all of our camera sites, even with the wolves, bears, bobcats, alligators and human hunters. Second, by showing that red wolves do seem to have valuable ecological impacts on other wildlife species, our research makes it all the more urgent that we protect the existing wolf population in North Carolina and return red wolves to more of the wild areas across the southeast.”

The red wolf was once common across the southeastern United States but had reached the brink of extinction by the 1960s. A captive breeding program started in the 1970s saved the species, and in 1987 the federal government launched the reintroduction effort in eastern North Carolina.  Numbers grew to more than 120 animals by 2012, but a surge in poaching between 2014 and 2018 caused the wild population to decline to about 15 wolves in 2020. As of October, 21-23 wild wolves were estimated to live in the area.

Fieldwork for the study was led by researchers from Wildlands Network, with collaborators at N.C. State University and the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences analyzing the data.   

Smokey Mountain News Logo
Go to top
Payment Information


At our inception 20 years ago, we chose to be different. Unlike other news organizations, we made the decision to provide in-depth, regional reporting free to anyone who wanted access to it. We don’t plan to change that model. Support from our readers will help us maintain and strengthen the editorial independence that is crucial to our mission to help make Western North Carolina a better place to call home. If you are able, please support The Smoky Mountain News.

The Smoky Mountain News is a wholly private corporation. Reader contributions support the journalistic mission of SMN to remain independent. Your support of SMN does not constitute a charitable donation. If you have a question about contributing to SMN, please contact us.