By - Lindsey Liles

“This is what I like to see,” says Chris Lasher, of the North Carolina Zoo in Asheboro, as he surveys a seemingly empty wooded enclosure that holds four red wolves that have scattered from sight, disturbed by our presence. “They’re being red wolves.”

As the coordinator of the Species Survival Plan, which cares for 230 red wolves across forty-nine partner organizations, Lasher works to ensure that captive red wolves stay as untamed and unacclimated to humans as possible. The ultimate goal: reintroduction into the wild at Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge, in the swampy forests of northeastern North Carolina.

Red wolves—lithe, red-hued, golden-eyed, and shy—are the only wolves with a historic range fully in the United States; they once roamed from New York to Texas in family groups of a bonded-for-life pair and their offspring. But human eradication and habitat loss hacked at their numbers until they disappeared from the wild completely in 1980.

Using fourteen founding wolves taken into captivity before then, scientists brought them back over several decades, only to face enough political opposition and restrictions that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) recovery plan—though proving successful—came to a virtual halt. In 2020, the wild population in Eastern North Carolina fell to seven known wolves.