By Allie English
The most endangered canid in the world is making a return, protected deep within the woodlands of Chattanooga, Tennessee.
Once declared extinct in the wild, extensive conservation efforts have brought the American red wolf (Canis rufus) back onto the landscape. Reflection Riding Arboretum and Nature Center is one of 40+ facilities that houses and recovers this remarkable species.
“Red wolves are apex predators,” Tish Gailmard, Director of Wildlife Conservation at Reflection Riding, explains. “They are critical to the health of our environment.”
As a keystone species native to much of the southeastern United States, American red wolves are essential to maintain a balanced ecosystem.
In their absence, the lack of predation triggers an ecological trophic cascade. White-tailed deer are permitted to over-browse trees and shrubs. This then reduces songbird habitat while also introducing hazardous erosion into the waterways.
“When you remove the red wolf, all of that falls out of balance; our environment becomes unhealthy,” Gailmard said. “When our environment is unhealthy, we humans are unhealthy.”
The red wolf population was stripped from the Southeastern landscape years ago due to anthropogenic activity—government-sponsored predator control programs, human interactions, and habitat loss.
Captive breeding programs brought the canid species back into the wild in the 2000s, only to have population numbers plummet once again due to illegal gunshot mortality.
Today, only an estimated 19-21 red wolves remain in the wild, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) listed the red wolf as critically endangered in 1996, where its insecure status persists.
“We caused the problems that have moved this animal to the endangered species list,” Gailmard explained, “and it’s our duty to right those wrongs and get this animal re-established back on the landscape, doing the job it needs to do.”
As a major participant of the Red Wolf SAFE Program (Saving Animals from Extinction), Reflection Riding aims to recover the species through careful research and public engagement.
“Here at Reflection Riding, we have three goals with red wolves—breed, exhibit and educate,” Gailmard said.
Captive breeding programs are established with the central purpose of releasing well-adjusted individuals into the wild, whether that be an adult or fostered pup.
“Our whole goal is to not do this work anymore,” Gailmard explained. “We don’t want this animal under human care. We want it on the landscape in its natal territory, doing the job that it was designed to do.”
With only 14 founding wolves to begin the program, captive breeding occurs between active recovery facilities and is carefully planned to diversify the gene pool. Insight is gathered with the help of a geneticist and software program to form ideal pairings of the 243 total red wolves under human care.
One red wolf at Reflection Riding, Colbert, is exceptionally unique.
“He is considered the most genetically valuable male wolf under human care right now,” Gailmard explained. “His genes are underrepresented in the current population, so we need him to breed.”
After finding that Colbert struggles to reproduce, Reflection Riding was able to cryogenically freeze his sperm so that his genetics will be able to continue in the population, even if he is unable to produce offspring with a mate.
Reflection Riding also values exhibiting the wolves and educating the greater public on the importance of the species.
On Friday afternoons, the general public is invited to explore the lives of their native animal ambassadors.
“Just to see them is incredible,” Gailmard mused about the wolves. “If we get lucky, you might hear them howl. I’ve been doing this for a little over 20 years, and every time they howl, I stop and listen.”
As the Red Wolf Education Chairman of the SAFE Program, Gailmard believes in the power of connection through public education.
“When you create empathy, I think you really get people to look at that animal in a different perspective and value it, appreciate it, and respect it,” Gailmard said.
Although red wolves have faced an unstable past, Reflection Riding remains hopeful for the wolf’s future.
“I’ve seen the success; I’ve seen it happen,” Gailmard said. “I know it can happen, and it’s what keeps me going because I know we can recover this animal again and, hopefully, recover it for good.”
To learn more about the species or support Reflection Riding in their efforts, visit https://reflectionriding.org/save-the-red-wolf
Meet the Storyteller
Julia (Allie) English is an aspiring documentary photographer with a passion for storytelling. She currently studies both Communications and Environmental Science with the goal of bringing awareness to social and environmental injustices. Allie served as an Assistant Photo Editor with the University Echo and as an intern with Cypress Magazine. She believes in the power of visual storytelling to promote empathy and community. For collaboration, please reach out to email@example.com.