Four red wolf pups are drawing smiles this week at a South Carolina nature preserve.
The baby wolves were born Tuesday at the Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge as part of a federal captive breeding program.
Federal officials said the wolves are the first born at the refuge’s Sewee Visitors’ Center – which is obvious from the reactions of wildlife managers and refuge boosters.
“We are taking pictures like first-time parents around here,” said Grace Gasper, director of the non-profit Sewee Association, which supports the Charleston County refuge.
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For now, the pups are being kept out of public view “to give the new mom some quiet time to adjust with her pups,” according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Cape Romain Facebook page. The page has drawn hundreds of enthusiastic responses from the public.
The Sewee Center, a visitor’s complex for the refuge on U.S. 17 near Awendaw, has had a few red wolves on public display since the 1990s. But in 2013, the center received a breeding pair from the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge in North Carolina. Refuge managers in South Carolina were hopeful they would see pups. One of five pups born Tuesday and displayed in photos released by the wildlife service did not survive, according to one report.
This week’s births are significant because red wolves are among the most endangered animals in the United States, with no more than a few hundred left.
Native to the Southeast, red wolves were viewed as pests and hunted to near extinction after Europeans settled the region. Habitat loss also has affected populations.
Today, many red wolves are found in captivity, although some still are in the wild. Those re-introduced to the wild – done as part of a federal program to restore populations – are in danger of breeding with coyotes, which further threatens their future.
The red wolf is a smaller cousin of the gray wolf found in the western United States. The red wolf gets its name from the rusty coloring of its head, ears and legs. A red wolf typically weighs 45 to 80 pounds.
Cape Romain has a long history with red wolves.
For 18 years, the government kept a pair of red wolves on the wildlife refuge’s Bull’s Island as part of the national breeding program.
When breeding pairs reproduced, the pups would stay on the island with their parents to learn hunting and survival skills. During that time, 26 pups were born at Bull’s Island. After reaching a certain age, the growing wolves would be transferred to the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge in northeastern North Carolina.
In 2005, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service shut down the Bull’s Island program at the South Carolina refuge after deciding that populations had reached an acceptable level at the North Carolina refuge. But it continued to keep wolves in enclosures at the Sewee Center, which according to the Fish and Wildlife Service had never had a pup born there. The last time pups were born on Bull’s Island, outside of the visitors’ center, was in 2004, the service said Friday.