Five red wolf pups have been born in the Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge, the first births since the last wild wolf there was trapped and removed in 2005.

Red wolve facts

One of only two species of wolves worldwide.

Slightly smaller than the gray wolf; larger than a German shepherd.

Eats rabbits, deer, raccoons and rodents.

Named for its reddish fur behind the ears, along the legs and neck.

Nearly wiped out as a varmint in the early 1900s.

An estimated 100-110 now roam about 1 million acres in eastern North Carolina because of a reintroduction program at the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge.

200 are maintained in captive breeding facilities throughout the United States.

Sources: U.S. National Park Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife

The pups, four of whom survived, were born to a captive pair in a breeding enclosure at the Sewee Visitors Center in the refuge north of Charleston.

They won't stay. They're not likely to ever see Bulls Island, where the wild wolves once roamed. But most if not all of the survivors of this imperiled rare species will get a chance in the wild.

Within a week or two, the pups are expected to be transported to the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge in eastern North Carolina, the only mainland area in the country where the wolves can be released.

Visitors to the Sewee Visitors Center won't be able to see the pups. The breeding enclosure is off limits to the public, but two sister red wolves in a separate enclosure remain on view.

At the Alligator River refuge, pups born in captivity are given to wild-released females who are nursing pups about the same age and who take them on as their own, teaching them the hunting skills they need. Biologists at that refuge are searching for appropriate dens now.

The Sewee pups are highly valuable to the Alligator River effort, said David Rabon, U.S. Fish and Wildlife service red wolf recovery program coordinator.

Why? They bring fresh genes.

The red wolf is the German-shepherd-size cousin of the better known gray wolf. They share a slinking feral grace that fascinates and frightens people, and an exaggerated reputation as a menace to livestock and wild game. In the past, that led to bounties and wholesale slaughter.

Biologists considered the red wolf extinct in 1980, when only 14 captives were known to exist. Today about 300 wolves are living, including slightly more than 100 in the wild at Alligator River. Those numbers are so low that every wolf is considered vital to the species' survival.

With the tiny breeding population, keeping a genetically healthy population is a problem, so captive wolves at facilities around the country are selected each year to breed, based on their genetic diversity. The Cape Romain wolves are part of that pool.

Bulls Island is one of the barrier islands on the outermost ocean stretch of Cape Romain, where Fish and Wildlife in 1987 launched a wild breeding program as part of required endangered species recovery program. The effort at first met resistance from hunters and suburban pet owners, but the wolves preyed largely on raccoons. Then something unexpected happened. The canines stealthy presence on the island began to thrill people.

Visits increased, even though the chances were poor of spotting any more than a paw print. When an occasional wolf swam off the island, people kept track of sightings and rooted for its survival.

Refuge managers came to admire the wolves' intelligence and loyalty, such as males who took over rearing young when their mate was killed.

But in 2005, the last wolves were removed from Bulls, the victims of staff and budget cuts as well as the successes at Alligator River. The last wolf to be spotted in the wild on the island before its capture was a male that momentarily made a stand on the road as his pup scrambled for cover behind him.

Now Alligator River is a victim of its successes. The wolves have begun to roam, as they will. And they're getting shot.

"There's been a steady increase in shootings for the past nine, 10 years," Rabon said. "Obviously with this small a population the loss of any individual has a serious effect. The loss of a breeding wolf has even greater effect, further limiting the gene pool."

So the Sewee pups are "of high genetic value," Rabon said.

Sarah Dawsey, the Cape Romain refuge manager, watched Bulls Island's last male make that stand for his pups in 2005, when she was the biologist put in charge of rounding up the wolves.

When she heard that the breeding female at Sewee was pregnant, there was a little hesitation, concern for the work that would create for her budget-cut staff.

"But when I saw those pups, a big smile broke out. I'm still smiling," she said. "They're looking great. They're nice and fat, looking healthy."

The wolves' recovery act calls for them to be reintroduced to three areas, but funding is a perennial issue. There are few places in the East sufficiently removed from people and their traffic.

But some areas can be too remote, such as parts of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. A wolf population failed there when a virus killed the pups, and biologists discovered that the wolves wouldn't stay put in the steep, mountainous park.

With better management techniques, a rise in ecotourism and popular interest, Fish and Wildlife again is looking at potential sites. Bulls Island is too small to hold a population, but if more sites open up, the island's wild breeding program could return.

Dawsey remembers that day in 2005, stopping the pickup short to marvel at the stealthy, rarely-glimpsed animal poised regally in the road.

"Oh yeah, absolutely, I'd love to have them back," she said.

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