Turns Out the Red Wolf is Part Gray, Part Coyote

John Woodhouse Audubon – Red Texas Wolf – Google Art Project via WikiMedia Commons

Last time I recall linking to a story with gray wolves, it was in the context of rewilding. And though I haven’t written about the red wolf before, it’s another North American species that is protected under US federal law in the Endangered Species Act. But new genetic research published last week on the DNA of North American wolf genomes is showing that the red wolf is in fact a hybrid species; a mix of gray wolf and coyote. The same goes for the Eastern gray wolf, another protected species. Carl Zimmer reports for the New York Times:

The finding, announced Wednesday, highlights the shortcomings of laws intended to protect endangered species, as such laws lag far behind scientific research into the evolution of species.

The gray wolf and red wolf were listed as endangered in the lower 48 states under the Endangered Species Act in the 1970s and remain protected today, to the periodic consternation of ranchers and agricultural interests.

In 2013, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service recognized the Eastern wolf as a separate species, which led officials to recommend delisting the gray wolf. Conservationists won a lawsuit that forced the agency to abandon the plan.

The new finding sharpens a scientific question at the heart of that debate: How should the Endangered Species Act address threatened animals that are hybrids?

“What’s very exciting about this paper is that it’s using extremely powerful tools to address longstanding, challenging questions in conservation,” said Ryan Kovach, a research wildlife biologist at the United States Geological Survey who was not involved in the new study.

When Europeans arrived in North America, wolves roamed much of the continent. Farmers and ranchers almost entirely eradicated them from what is now the United States.

Over the past four decades, conservation efforts have helped a few wolf populations recover in the Rocky Mountains and around the Great Lakes. In 2015, the Fish and Wildlife Service estimated there were 5,505 wolves in the continental United States.

Those efforts were possible because of the Endangered Species Act, established in 1973. The law led to a recovery program for a species known as the red wolf, or Canis rufus, believed to have originally lived in the Southeast. The last red wolves were removed from the wild in 1980, and captive-bred animals were released into the wild beginning in 1987.

The gray wolf, or Canis lupus, once ranged from the Rockies to New England. In 1978, the Fish and Wildlife Service declared it to be threatened in the lower 48 states.

In 2000, some scientists began to argue that the eastern population of gray wolves was in fact a separate species, which they called Canis lycaon. The Fish and Wildlife Service recognized that species in 2013, and officials argued that the gray wolf, now deemed to be limited to the western United States, was doing well enough to be taken off the list.

The new analysis, published in the journal Science Advances, paints a profoundly different portrait of the American wolf…

Read the rest of the article here.

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