Study to take a closer look at the ancestry of the red wolf


Two older red wolves move past a camera in the red wolf recovery area at the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge. Photo: Wild Lands Network

Collared Wolf counts have been updated.

Just two weeks after a federal court ordered the US Fish and Wildlife Service to update its management of the critically endangered red wolf population in northeastern North Carolina, a team of Scientists have been asked for the second time to determine if the red wolf is wolf enough.

In a report released Tuesday by an ad hoc committee with the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine, details were provided on research plans that will assess the taxonomy of previously unknown potential red wolves in Louisiana, as well as strategies to examine the evolutionary relationships between red wolf populations.

Meanwhile, the only remaining wild population of red wolves in Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge has shrunk from its peak of about 150 to about seven collared wolves, about half of which are approaching old age. Conservation efforts have suffered for years from bitter conflicts with landowners, political controversies and questions about coyote hybridization.

“It’s never easy to decide what a species is or isn’t – it’s one of those tasks that’s easier said than done,” committee chair Joseph Travis said. from Florida State University, during a webinar Tuesday on the report, “Evaluation of Applications for Conducting Research to Determine the Taxonomy of Wild Canids in the Southeastern United States.” But the controversy extends to the beyond the realm of science because the red wolf has been the subject of significant conservation and recovery efforts that aren’t universally positive – let’s face it.”

The academies report on the new research, commissioned by the US Fish and Wildlife Service, was released on the heels of a OK between the agency and the nonprofit Center for Biological Diversity, approved Oct. 2, which requires a revised final recovery plan for red wolves to be completed by Feb. 28, 2023.

Given the difficulty of re-establishing the population in North Carolina, the center wants the agency to reintroduce red wolves to other suitable locations.

According to the center’s October 2019 report, “Return for the American Red Wolves“, a total of 20,000 square miles of habitat on public lands in North Carolina, Florida, Virginia, West Virginia, Arkansas, and Alabama would support approximately 500 breeding pairs of red wolves.

“Each of these areas meets the basic requirements for successful reintroductions,” the report states, “including an adequate prey base, potential for coyote reproductive isolation (to reduce hybridization), connectivity to other possible reintroduction sites and low human and road densities.

The center blames Fish and Wildlife for abandoning successful management tactics such as neutering coyotes, releasing captive wolves into the wild, and raising pups that have contributed to the steady growth of wild red wolves in the region. five county recovery area.

“I don’t think you can ever recover such a widespread species if the effort is focused just in North Carolina,” Collette Adkins, the center’s director of carnivore conservation, said in an interview.

Adkins said the center received no response from the agency requesting information about its plans.

“It looks like they’ve completely stalled,” she said. “We want them to at least start identifying some sites so they can start this long process. Because they’re going to need to get public support and find the right scientists to collaborate with, and they’re just not doing it.

The Fish and Wildlife Service is committed to working together, through a partnership, to complete the management plan update on time, said Phil Kloer, public affairs specialist for the southeast region of the agency, in an e-mail, responding to a request for information.

“Updating this recovery plan is a priority for the Service,” he said.

Over the past 50 years or so, Travis said, scientists have learned that it’s “not unusual at all” to see species with a history of mixing – combining genes between different species. For example, he said, some groups of humans have Neanderthal genes, but that doesn’t make them any less of a valid species.

“But it can make it harder to decide what a red wolf really is – and what it was,” he said.

The new research will build on the 2019 National Academies report that was commissioned by Congress and sponsored by Fish and Wildlife, which confirmed that red wolves are a separate species.

The National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine presents itself as a non-profit, non-governmental group that provides independent and objective advice to benefit society, advance science and promote progress.

Kloer said Fish and Wildlife called on the new research to continue efforts “to refine our understanding of the differences and similarities between what is currently defined as the distinct red wolf species from the historic wolf species genome. red.

“FWS requested that (the Academies of Sciences) develop a research strategy that would identify the types of studies needed to improve understanding of genetic ancestry, phylogenetic relationships, morphology, behavior and ecology” , Kloer wrote in the email.

According to the academies report, the genetic analysis will focus on species dating from before 1800, known as the ancient period before settlers began to move west; the historical period from 1800 to 1920, before the coyotes began to move east; and the modern period, after 1920, in search of lineage distinction and evidence of genetic continuity.

Travis said there were very few old red wolf specimens to examine.

“It’s not going to be easy to get ancient DNA,” he said.

Genome sampling and sequencing will seek to answer questions about the relationships between the North Carolina red wolf population and the newly discovered Gulf Coast red wolves, as well as the extent to which red wolf genes are mixed with other canids, such as coyotes.

“There can be few problems as difficult as the canine problem because of how quickly they diverged…and then what looks like a massive gene swap,” Travis told the webinar. “Nevertheless, we think it could be a model for how these kinds of questions could be investigated in the future.”

What’s clear to conservation groups right now is that the red wolf won’t be able to survive much longer in the wild unless their management improves quickly.

Not only should Fish and Wildlife resume its previous successful management tactics in the Alligator River, but it should release more wolves into the wild from the more than 200 captive wolves on land in North Carolina and other places, said Ron Sutherland, chief scientist at the nonprofit Wildlands Network.

At the same time, he said, the agency must invest in raising awareness among landowners.

“There’s no good reason the federal government can’t step in with emergency releases of captive red wolves to save the wild population this winter,” Sutherland said in an email. “I personally believe that a robust financial incentive program is what we need to bring farmers back on board with hosting the red wolf on their properties in eastern North Carolina, as well as all over other states where reintroduction programs are underway.

“Landowners should be able to make as much or more money supporting the US red wolf recovery program than they can rent out their farms to deer hunters,” he said.

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