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 of ​​the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge. Photo: Wildlands Network

The numbers of collared wolves 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 whether the red wolf is wolf enough. .

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

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

“It is never easy to decide what a species is or is not – it’s one of those easier said than done tasks,” said committee chairman Joseph Travis of the Florida State University during a webinar Tuesday on the report, “Evaluation of Applications to Conduct Research to Determine the Taxonomy of Wild Canids in the Southeastern United States.” But the controversy extends beyond science field because the red wolf has been the subject of extensive conservation and recovery efforts that are not 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 agreement between the agency and the nonprofit Center for Biological Diversity, approved Oct. 2, which requires a final revised recovery plan for red wolves to be completed by Feb. 28, 2023.

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

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

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

The center blames Fish and Wildlife for abandoning effective management tactics such as neutering coyotes, releasing captive wolves into the wild and hosting puppies that have contributed to the steady growth of wild red wolves in the area. recovery zone of the five counties.

“I don’t think you can ever recover such a widespread species if efforts are focused solely on North Carolina,” said Collette Adkins, director of carnivore conservation at the center, in an interview.

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

“Looks like they’re completely stuck,” 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 gain public support and find the right scientists to collaborate with, and they just don’t. “

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

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

In the past 50 years or so, Travis said, scientists have learned that it is “not at all unusual” to see species with a history of mixing – a combination of genes between different species. For example, he said, certain groups of humans have Neanderthal genes, but that makes them a valid species nonetheless.

“But that can make it harder to decide what a red wolf really is – and what he 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 were a separate species.

The National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine promotes itself as a non-profit, non-governmental group that provides independent and objective advice for the benefit of society, advances science and fosters progress.

Kloer said Fish and Wildlife called on the new research to continue its 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 back to before 1800, known as the ancient period before settlers began to move west; the historical period from 1800 to 1920, before coyotes began to move east; and the modern period, after 1920, in search of lineage distinctions and evidence of genetic continuity.

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

“It won’t 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 recently discovered Gulf Coast red wolves, as well as the extent to which the red wolf genes are mixed with other canids, such as coyotes.

“There can be few issues as difficult as the canine problem because of how quickly they’ve diverged… and then what looks like a massive exchange of genes,” Travis told the webinar. “Nonetheless, we believe that this could be a model for how these kinds of questions could be studied in the future.”

What is clear to conservation groups right now is that the red wolf will not be able to survive any longer in the wild unless its management is quickly improved.

Not only should Fish and Wildlife resume its former successful management tactics in the Alligator River, but it is expected to release more wolves into the wild among more than 200 captive wolves to land in North Carolina and other locations, a said Ron Sutherland, chief scientist at the nonprofit Wildlands Network.

At the same time, he said, the agency should invest in educating landowners.

“There is no valid reason why the federal government cannot step in with emergency releases of captive red wolves to save the wild population this winter,” Sutherland said in an email. “Personally, I think a strong financial incentive program is what we need to bring farmers back on board with housing the Red Wolf on their properties in eastern North Carolina, as well as all over the world. other State where reintroduction programs are initiated.

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


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