Red Wolf Species Survival Plan

A Species Survival Plan (SSP) is a cooperative population management and conservation program for endangered species at zoos, aquariums and nature centers in North America. The SSP manages the breeding of each species in order to maintain a healthy, genetically diverse and demographically stable, self-sustaining population. It focuses the efforts of many different institutions into a single consistent program for conservation through research, education, reintroduction and field efforts. Each SSP has a coordinator who is responsible for general organization and administration. He works with all the cooperators throughout the year and at an annual meeting the coordinator and cooperators make decisions on the direction of the program.

The Master Plan plots the “family tree”. Besides managing the breeding of every animal of that species in captivity for genetic diversity and demographic stability, the master plan must take into account the logistics and feasibility of animal transfers as well as the social groupings of that species. Master Plans also include recommendations not to breed animals to avoid creating a surplus of animals which cannot be accommodated in the limited holding spaces of cooperators.

Studbooks are vital to the group as they contain the history of the entire captive population including births, deaths, transfers and lineage. Studbooks and computer software enable breeding recommendations.

Red Wolves have been maintained in captivity since the early 1970s, when the US Fish and Wildlife Service began capturing individuals from the remaining population in Texas and Louisiana. At that time, a captive breeding program was established at Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium in Tacoma, WA to increase the population size of Red Wolves and reestablish this federally endangered species into portions of its original range. The captive population has been managed demographically and genetically with the cooperation of approved zoos and nature centers across the country. When the gray wolf was reintroduced into Yellowstone, aspects of the Red Wolf program, things that worked and things that didn’t work, were applied to their program.

The Chattanooga Arboretum and Nature Center has been a member of this critical program since 1996 and is currently 1 of 40 RWSSP (Red Wolf Species Survival Plan) cooperators in the world that house Red Wolves; we are also a breeding facility and can have a breeding pair(s) depending on the recommendations made by the RWSSP.

The following is an article written by Will Waddell, RWSSP Coordinator, please bear in mind that this is an older article and while the facts remain accurate some of the numbers may have changed.

The Red Wolf Species Survival Plan
by Will Waddell, Red Wolf Species Survival Plan Coordinator

Removing a species from the wild for the purpose of captive propagation is a rare event, done only when all other efforts to preserve the species in the wild (in- situ) have failed. It is better to conserve habitats and animals together. Otherwise, without quick action, population decline leads to extinction.

Red Wolves were nearing extinction in the wild when the Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium in Tacoma, Wash. established a captive-breeding program in association with the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS). The program goals were to: (1) certify the genetic purity of wild-caught wolves, (2) increase the number of genetically pure wolves in captivity and distribute them to selected zoos and (3) maintain a viable red wolf gene pool to reestablish the species in the wild. (USFWS, 1984.)

The Point Defiance Zoo developed husbandry techniques, recruited four additional cooperating institutions to house wolves in the captive program and received the American Zoo and Aquarium Association's (AZA) approval for a Red Wolf SSP (RWSSP) program in 1984. By 1984, the captive population numbered 63 individuals and was growing, largely through the coordinated efforts of the Point Defiance Zoo and RWSSP cooperators. The reality of reintroducing a carnivore in the wild, for the first time, was now in sight. In 1987, USFWS released the first wolves at Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge. By 1991, 24 zoos and nature centers were participating in the RWSSP. Twenty-two of those facilities housed wolves.

The RWSSP is the foundation of the recovery program. Without its collective expertise and resources, the future of the red wolf would be uncertain. The contributions of the RWSSP include: (1) managing populations, (2) training field personnel on techniques for proper capture and restraint, (3) applying captive research to the field and (4) reintroducing captive born red wolves.

This RWSSP continues today with 31 cooperating institutions. They provide housing, daily care, medical treatment, transportation costs (for moving wolves from one facility to another) and equipment. Based on a recent survey, total costs vary according to the number of wolves held, but average approximately $8000 per year, per facility. (this is definitely a dated number!!)

One of the most important aspects of the RWSSP is education. The participating zoos inform visitors about the value of wolves in ecosystems and inspire people to support the wolf's reestablishment in the wild.

Successful conservation programs are often developed through partnerships. The red wolf recovery program is a great example of organizations working together to benefit a species. Zoos are proud to play a significant role in red wolf recovery.

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