Spotting the difference between a red wolf and a coyote

In North Carolina, hunters can mistake an endangered red wolf for a coyote. The distinction is moot for cars.


USFWS | Public Domain

Take Action

In November of last year, a female red wolf pup was caught and collared in North Carolina, then released. One month and three days later, she was killed as a result of a vehicle strike. Survival isn’t easy for this highly endangered species. 

Today, red wolves only exists in the wild thanks to a captive breeding program, and there are only an estimated 20-22 living red wolves (outside of those in captivity). All are in Eastern North Carolina. 

Gunshot wounds are the top killer. Hunters have mistaken red wolves for coyotes (see photo at bottom). Note that the wolf is not always red, and it shares genes with both coyotes and gray wolves. Hoping to help hunters distinguish between the two species, the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission issued a guide.

Here are the guide’s key takeaways, plus a bonus tip: 

  • Red wolves are longer (about 5 feet compared to 3 feet for coyotes)
  • Red wolves typically have a splotch of red behind their ears and the back of their legs
  • Coyotes have longer snouts 
  • Bonus: red wolves are often collared, like the one above 

Cars are the second leading killer of red wolves, and in this case, the distinction between a coyote and a wolf doesn’t matter. Drivers are simply trying to get from Point A to Point B. Meanwhile, wolves are crossing a road or highway that runs through their habitat – also trying to get from Point A to Point B in order to hunt, find a mate and just roam. 

For vehicle strikes, arguably the solution is clearer. North Carolina needs more and better wildlife crossings.

USFWS | Public Domain
Red wolf crossing sign

A sign, like the one above, can help, but it’s not enough. Underpasses and overpasses make a lot of sense. Also, fencing that forces animals to cross in a narrower location (note that the sign says “next 10 miles”), coupled with signs, reduced speeds, rumble strips and flashing lights, can be highly effective. 

Here’s a  small bit of good news for this wolf that desperately needs some: There are federal funds available ($350 million over five years) for wildlife crossing grants to states. This money exists as a result of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Deal, passed by Congress in 2021. The first round of grants went out in late 2023, and North Carolina wasn’t on the list. 

We encourage the North Carolina Dept. of Transportation to seek new funding and build (and improve upon) the type of crossings that will give the highly endangered red wolf a shot at survival. Red wolves are part of the North Carolina story. Let’s keep it that way.  

Tom Koerner/USFWS | Public Domain
A coyote

Steve Blackledge

Senior Director, Conservation America Campaign, Environment America Research & Policy Center

Started on staff: 1991 B.A., Wartburg College Steve directs Environment America’s efforts to protect our public lands and waters and the species that depend on them. He led our successful campaign to win full and permanent funding for our nation’s best conservation and recreation program, the Land and Water Conservation Fund. He previously oversaw U.S. PIRG’s public health campaigns. Steve lives in Sacramento, California, with his family, where he enjoys biking and exploring Northern California.

Emily Mason

Advocate, Environment North Carolina Research & Policy Center

Emily advocates for cleaner air, water, clean energy and protecting wildlife and wild places in North Carolina. Emily lives in Cary, North Carolina, where she enjoys trying new recipes and kayaking.

Find Out More