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A litter of critically endangered red wolf pups surprises scientists

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

For about 30 years, officials in western Kentucky have been running a red wolf recovery program. Scientists there have been trying to save the critically endangered animal. Recently, they delivered some good news. This past spring, a litter of pups, nicknamed the Fantastic Four, were born, which was a surprise to the staff. The male wolf who fathered them was thought to be too old. Derek Operle with member station WKMS has more.

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DEREK OPERLE, BYLINE: With only a little more than 250 red wolves in the world, births aren't all that common and are usually planned. But at Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area, 12-year-old Jasper defied expectations to become the oldest breeding red wolf on record. He and mate Ember are parents to four bouncing baby pups.

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OPERLE: The recreation area's lead naturalist John Pollpeter says red wolves used to be at the top of the food chain across the American South and were a familiar sight to residents before the late 1800s.

JOHN POLLPETER: When Daniel Boone, Davy Crockett and John James Audubon - when they were painting or writing about a wolf, they were writing about the red wolf.

OPERLE: Red wolves are the most endangered canid in the world. With only around 20 known specimens in the wild, most are in captivity at facilities across the country. With distinctive reddish-colored fur on its neck and legs, a typical adult red wolf is around 4 feet long from tip to tail and weighs about 80 pounds - a little bigger than a German shepherd. What makes it really special, Pollpeter says, is it can only be found in the American South.

POLLPETER: The red wolf is purely American, but also purely only Southern.

OPERLE: Widespread extermination campaigns, some led by the U.S. government, and habitat loss were the biggest contributors to the species' population decline. Some experts, like red wolf species survival plan coordinator Chris Lasher, link past attitudes toward the red wolf directly to European fairy tales.

CHRIS LASHER: They thought they were - based on all those old stories that we hear, like "Little Red Riding Hood" and "The Three Little Pigs" and those type of things, that the red wolf was an evil animal that was going to, you know, attack children and attack pets and kill their livestock. And nothing's further from the truth.

OPERLE: Lasher works at the North Carolina Zoo in Asheboro. He coordinates with scientists and naturalists across the country to plan red wolf breeding programs and repopulation efforts. North Carolina is the home of the only wild population of red wolves since wildlife managers started rereleasing them there in 1987. DeLene Beeland wrote a book about red wolves, hoping it would spark more conversation about saving the country's only native wolf species. She thinks the name should be changed to the American red wolf.

DELENE BEELAND: Most people know gray wolves are a European species that crossed into North America in what we call a biological invasion. But they didn't evolve here. And I think that's a really important distinction. You know, this is America's red wolf, and we need to save it.

OPERLE: To release more red wolves into the wild, Lasher says more genetic diversity and a bigger population base are needed. That means more wolves in captivity at places like zoos and recreation areas.

LASHER: We need a minimum of 330 animals under human care to be able to provide animals to multiple recovery locations. Right now, we only have space for about 260 animals under human care.

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OPERLE: The pups at Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area will stay with their parents and siblings for at least 18 months. Then they'll be transferred to a zoo to be part of a breeding program or begin training for release into the wild.

For NPR News, I'm Derek Operle in Cadiz, Ky. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.