The red wolf, indigenous to the eastern United States of America, is a federally protected species, and has been considered by the IUCN since 1996 as a critically endangered species. In 2007, the entire red wolf population was estimated to consist of 300 individuals, of which 207 are still in captivity.
In 2012, the Southern Environmental Law Center sued the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission for threatening the existence of the red wolf in the recovery area by legalizing nocturnal coyote hunting. In 2014, nocturnal hunting in the area was banned, and hunters were required to hold a license authorizing them to hunt coyotes, and report each kill.
In response, the NCWRC adopted a resolution asking the USFWS to remove all wolves from private lands, end the recovery project, and declare the species extinct in the wild, stating that, among other reasons, genetic pollution with coyotes and the preponderance of privately used land in the recovery area made the project inconsistent with the purposes of the Endangered Species Act.
This came after a project report released in 2014 by the Wildlife Management Institute stating that, despite its successes, the wolf recovery program Red needed to update its strategy in preventing coyote inbreeding and improve its public relations.
Subsequently, the USFWS ceased its coyote spay project and stopped releasing captive-born wolves into the recovery area. One year later, the wild population decreased from 100-115 individuals to 50-65. It is likely that the species was the first American wolf encountered by European settlers, initially distributed throughout the eastern states of the United States, from the Atlantic Ocean to central Texas, north from the Ohio Valley, northern Pennsylvania, to New York, and south to the Gulf of Mexico.
A campaign of persecution and environmental destruction lasting well into the mid-twentieth century pushed the red wolf to the brink of extinction. In the late 1960s, the population dwindled to a few along the Louisiana Gulf Coast and East Texas.
Fourteen specimens were chosen for a breeding program activated by the Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium, which lasted from 1974 until 1980. In 1978, after a successful experimental relocation on Bulls Island off the coast of South Carolina, in order to proceed with its reintroduction, the red wolf was formally declared an extinct species in the wild.
In 1987, specimens were introduced at the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge located on the Albemarle-Pamlico Peninsula of North Carolina, with a further introduction two years later at the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
From 63 individuals released between 1987 and 1994, the red wolf population increased to 100-120 in 2012, but decreased to 50-75 in 2015. Initially classified as a distinct species based on its morphology, the taxonomic status of the species has become controversial with the rise of molecular biology, with several scholars deeming it a separate species, and others proposing the presence of a hybrid between the gray wolf and coyote, with the latter hypothesis being confirmed in the 2010s by repeated whole genome sequencing.
The red wolf's historical native range is recognized to have extended throughout the eastern United States, from the Atlantic and Gulf coasts, north to the Ohio Valley and Pennsylvania, and west to central Texas and Missouri southeast.
Research of fossil specimens indicates that its habitat also extended south of the St. Lawrence River in Canada along the east coast and west to Missouri and Illinois as far south as central Texas.