Someone recently asked me how many wolves we have around here. Another person said that they had seen a wolf standing in a field near an interstate highway not long ago. Well, I hate to disappoint anyone, but you didn't see a wolf anywhere near Tennessee unless you saw one in a zoo. In fact gray wolves never lived here...ever. But, a different wolf did live here not too long ago and is now breeding again in the wild in a state right next to Tennessee.
First of all, let's talk about gray wolves. These are the wolves that you often read about being reintroduced Yellowstone National Park and they are the big bad wolf of stories and legends. Here are the facts. Gray wolves once roamed over all of the continental U.S. except the Southeast. By 1973, by every means imaginable, gray wolves were eradicated in the lower 48 states except for a few hundred in Northern Minnesota and Michigan. Today, through re-introduction efforts and protection, there are about 1000 wolves in the Yellowstone National Park and the northern rockies (Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho), 50 in Arizona and New Mexico, and 4000 in far northern Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Michigan. That's it! If you saw a wolf anywhere else, you didn't see a wild wolf. As for being big and bad...not true. In the last 40 years in North America (including Canada and Alaska) there have only been 16 cases of non-rabid wolves biting humans. The one fatality in those 40 years was caused by a human habituated, wolf that was used to being fed by humans. In contrast, pet dogs kill about 12 humans per year in North America and seriously bite millions. Believe it or not, you are safer facing a pack of wild wolves in Yellowstone, than you are facing that wacko dog that lives down the street.
Now, just as interesting to me, and much closer to home, is the wolf that used to live right here in Tennessee and is once again living in the wild not far away. Most people have never even heard of the Red Wolf. It is a separate, but closely related species to the Gray Wolf. The Red Wolf used to be the top predator in the southeast and it lived from eastern Texas to the Atlantic coast and from southern Pennsylvania south to Florida. The red wolves were nearly extinct when the last 17 in the wild were captured in 1980. Any Red wolves alive today are decedents of those 17 or the few that were in zoos.
The Red wolf photo above is by Baron Crawford.
The red wolf is smaller than a gray wolf but bigger than a coyote. Large male red wolves can top out at about 80 pounds. In contrast, gray wolves can reach 175 pounds. Red wolves look thinner and longer legged than a gray wolf. Red wolves are very shy, secretive, and elusive and are rarely seen because they primarily hunt small mammals such as rodents, at night.
The red wolf was reintroduced back into the wild back in 1992 just down the road in the Great Smokey Mountains National Park. Of the 28 pups born in the wild, zero survived due to parasites, lack of prey, and predation and the original 37 adults were down to about 11. In 1998 all that were remaining were recaptured, because they just couldn't survive in the GSMNP.
However, about the same time 4 pairs of red wolves were released in northeastern North Carolina in the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge. Those 8 wolves have now grown to about 120 and they are doing well. Forty-one new wild pups were born in 2009. Although these wolves are hard to spot, you could hear them by attending a guided “howling”. At these nighttime events rangers howl and the wolf packs howl back.
Wolves of any kind are always controversial. Ranchers and hunters claim that they kill livestock and decimate deer and elk herds. Conservationists say that we are just returning wolves to their natural place and helping to put nature back in balance. However, no one can argue that wolves bring in big dollars to local economies from wildlife watchers. Wolf watching in Yellowstone NP is estimated to bring in up to $10 million each year to the local economy there.
Regardless of your opinion of wolves, you must admit that they are interesting. You could go to Yellowstone NP or Minnesota to hear or see gray wolves or even as close as North Carolina for red wolves. Just don't expect to see any in your backyard anytime soon.