Should the gray wolf keep its endangered species protection? New genomic research provides the scientific answer

July 28, 2016
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With smaller wolf packs we make it inevitable that in order to survive, the wolf will be with the only other wild canid available, the coyote. If wolf protection is removed, we will lose the wolf by policies that not only kill individual wolves but ultimately destroy the entire gray wolf species. We will literally lose Minnesota’s iconic wild gray wolf.  We are courting extreme danger here in Minnesota by having driven down the wolf population immediately upon their return from the brink of extinction. With our tiny packs (average 4-5 wolves per pack) and significantly lowered pack numbers, from an estimated 503 in 2008 to 374 in 2015 in MN, we could lose the western gray wolf completely - simply by driving down their numbers and thus limiting the wolf's options to be with another wolf.

Read the summary article from the link above, or clicking on the picture link below.

Also read a followup interview with the senior author of the study, published in Los Angeles Times: "Scientists Find Only One True Wolf Species in North America" (here). The article provides a nice historical perspective on wolf protection and progress in scientific species determination.

Excerps of the most significant conservation conclusions quoted from the study:

  • Recently, the USFWS has recognized an eastern wolf species that historically inhabited the Great Lakes region and 29 eastern states to the exclusion of the gray wolf. Thus, designating the eastern wolf would imply that this entity could be considered endangered under the ESA, because it is now restricted to a fraction of its historic range and is threatened by hybridization. Rather than formally recognizing this threatened status, the USFWS has accepted the revised taxonomy and proposed that the original listing of the gray wolf is incorrect because it included the geographic range of the eastern wolf. Consequently, the USFWS concluded that the gray wolf listing under the ESA is invalid and should be revoked. However, our results suggest that the genomes from the Great Lakes region show little taxonomic distinction and that only two distinct North American species (coyote and gray wolf) are supported as inhabiting the Great Lakes region.
  • Our findings provide a critical heuristic lesson in endangered species management. The overly strict application of taxonomy to support endangered species status is antiquated.
  • We maintain that the ESA could be interpreted in a modern evolutionary framework, devaluing the Victorian typological concept in exchange for a more dynamic view that allows for natural selection to occur on admixed genomes and to evolve phenotypes that are adapted to human-altered habitats and changing climates.
  • For the Great Lakes region wolf, preservation of areas that favor abundant self-sustaining populations of wolves to the exclusion of coyotes may allow the wolf population to become increasingly gray wolf in genetic composition and approach the historic population.
  • After the reintroduction of the gray wolf to Yellowstone National Park, an area that has ideal wolf habitat, coyote populations decreased initially and no wolf/coyote hybridization has been observed.
  • Preservation of such high-value wolf habitat in the Great Lakes may likewise provide the best option for genetic restoration of the population through natural processes.
  • Unfortunately, as a consequence of the extirpation of gray wolves in the American Southeast, the reintroduced population of red wolves in eastern North Carolina is doomed to genetic swamping by coyotes without the extensive management of hybrids as is currently practiced by the USFWS. Further, the absence of the ancestral population of gray wolves that once existed in the American South means that the historical gene pool cannot be readily reconstructed by conservation actions.

For interested, here is a link to read the original 2016 study. Also, in PDF format here.