East Tennessee Outdoors… East Tennessee Red Wolfs

Published 10:15 am Friday, July 24, 2020

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The year was 1885, and East Tennessee was still a very wild place. Mountain lions roamed the hills and hollows, and elk could be heard bugling along the mountainsides.

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One of the main predators in the area was still the red wolf. They ran in packs in the wilder areas and were hunted for bounty by some in the mountain communities.

One cold, snowy night a 13-year-old girl made her way through the woods heading to a relative’s house. The young lady had made this trip a hundred times before, so much so she did not even need a light to guide her way.

With only the moon reflecting on the snow, this girl came within sight of her cousin’s house and the end of her walk.

Suddenly, she saw a glimpse on the right side of the trail. Then she saw another on the left side. Something was there and then it was gone, like an apparition, like a spirit here now and never seen again.

She stopped and watched the shadows. There it was again, a speck of red, a glimpse of a tail. It was a pack of red wolves. They had been following her for several miles, but for some reason, they had not attacked her. They had only followed her on her right and on her left.

Walking a little faster, the little girl made her way on to the house where she knew she would be safe.

Stopping at the door, she watched and listened as they began to howl. Their mournful cries could be heard from the top of the little hollow to the bottom.

Finally, after a few minutes, they turned as one and ran away leaving only footprints in the snow as a reminder that they had ever been there.

The above scene really did happen in East Tennessee to a young lady of about 13. The young lady was my great grandmother.

There was a time when red wolves roamed these mountains as one of the most dangerous predators.

Packs of red wolves could be heard mournfully crying in the valleys as they searched for food and attempted to expand their territory.

Overhunting, bounties, interbreeding with coyotes, and loss of habitat brought them to extinction by the 1900s, and the mournful cry of the red wolf was not heard anymore.

For hundreds of years, the red wolf was found in this area. The red wolf has several different features from the gray wolf.

One of these was the red wolf normally weighed around 80 pounds while the gray wolf usually weighed around 100 pounds. Also, red wolves have been known to interbreed with coyotes, but a gray wolf will kill and eat any coyote they find in their territory.

Today the red wolf can be found in a few packs in Eastern North Carolina where they were transplanted in the 1980s. They can also be found in the Knoxville Zoo and the Western North Carolina Nature Center in Ashville.

But could a red wolf survive in these mountains today?

Is there enough habitat to support packs of red wolves in the modern-day Southern Appalachians?

We will discuss this and the red wolf experiment of the 1980s in one of our next columns in East Tennessee Outdoors.