Genetic Analysis of Eastern Wolves and Wolf Conservation

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(“Photo of Abe and the author, at Mission: Wolf” by Kimberly Wood, Rice University. Not licensed)

The evening choir of the wolves at <Mission: Wolf> sanctuary stirs the concrete dust of the urban life off me and puts me back on the cold soft ground, under the million stars only veiled by cold spring clouds, and among woods filled with freezing air so clear. Abe, here in the photo, is a wolf with part dog. His thick chest muscle unique to dogs indicates his lineage of domestication. Even as a hybrid, Abe can reproduce with any of his fellow canine species. This genetic openness within wolf-like species has been directly affecting our conservation policy that the legal safeguard that protected the American wolves can be rendered ineffective. Recently, Science Advances published a research by Bridgett VonHoldt and her team from Princeton University on the genetic relationships between different wolf species of North America. The study’s surprising findings not only provided hard evidences that canine species cannot easily be delineated by strict taxonomic categorization but also revealed the potential harm dwelling in the haphazardness of our current conservation policy that is critically off key with science.

Gray wolves in America have experienced roller-coaster ride between extinction and recovery ever since the European colonization. Once massacred to near extinction for bounty sanctioned by the US government, gray wolves have been recovering since 1979 when the species was listed under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), one of the strongest wildlife protection law. Now around 14,000 gray wolves roam in the American wild (Service 2016). In 2007 and 2011, however, US Fish and Wildlife Services (USFWS) delisted gray wolves in the Western Great Lakes from ESA protection. Fortunately, the Service revoked the delisting in 2015 after public disapproval.

For the delisting of gray wolves in 2011, USFWS claimed that the wolf population of the Great Lakes region has exceeded the target recovery population stated in the Recovery Plan for the Eastern Timber Wolf (US Eastern Wolf Recovery Team 1992). Formerly, USFWS recognized eastern timber wolf (or eastern wolf, Canis lupus lycaon) as a subspecies of gray wolf (Canis lupus). Assuming USFWS count of the wolves in the region is correct, the delisting seems like a valid decision, only if USFWS had not recently decided to consider the two wolves as totally separate species. Naturally, civil action against the delisting argued that not only the Service’s new classification does not reflect the current scientific findings but also administering conservation of a species based on a recovery plan of a different species is illogical (Civil Action No. 13-00186, 2013).

VonHoldt et al conducted holistic genomic analysis, comparing genetic sequences of primary wolf-like species in North America including domestic dogs. The study concluded that eastern wolves are in fact hybrids between gray wolves and coyotes, disproving the Service’s claim that gray wolves and eastern wolves are separate species. The prevalence of taxonomic ambiguity due to highly viable interbreeding makes the classification of genus Canis still not agreed upon today. Some classify canine species like the eastern wolves, red wolves, and even domestic dogs as subspecies under gray wolf, while others strictly separate them into different species. This subtle disagreement is manifested in the inconsistent nomenclature of canine species: domestic dogs and eastern timber wolves as examples, those advocating them as subspecies of gray wolf will name them Canis lupus familiaris (dogs) and Canis lupus lycaon (eastern wolves). Meanwhile, others sources name them Canis familiaris and Canis lycaon to distinguish them as separate species. However, perfectly fertile hybrids like dog-wolves, coywolves questions the soundness of our current policy that delineates canines into different species, as VonHoldt says: “people think that species should be genetically pure, that there should be tidy categories for ‘wolf’ and ‘coyote.’ That’s not what we found” (Morell 2016).

Yet the struggle USFWS is having to incorporate scientific updates to their decision making is understandable because science is still working on defining what makes a group of animals into a species. Considering the legal impact USFWS has on conservation, the Service must be supported beyond valid criticism and redirected to better coordination with science. Governmental conservation effort obviously consumes resources, and the Service’s effort to optimize their resources and efforts to species in most need for help is hundred-fold valid. According to VonHoldt’s findings, eastern wolves are subspecies of gray wolves, thus USFWS decision to delist wolves of Great Lakes region is valid in this sense. It could be beneficial for the resources currently dedicated to wolves be redirected to other species in dire help.

More so, USFWS decision to delist gray wolf from ESA protection and effects of current wolf conservation must evaluated to ensure future sustainability of the species as essential keystone of American ecosystems. Wolves are crucial pieces of the ecosystem that hold it together by controlling the behaviors and populations of other species that might cause immense ecological damages when unchecked. Distribution and population of wolves have not yet fully recovered and human exploitation remains as a major threat. Conditions of wolf conservation still requires federal level protection. It is only logical at current state of wolf protection that it should be bolstered rather than lowered. At the least, the 2015 decision to revoke the delisting of the gray wolves illustrates the hopeful picture that the government is willing to communicate with the public and science.

Works Cited

Civil Action No. 13-00186. 36. The United States District Court for the District of Columbia. 13 Feb. 2013. Wolf – Western Great Lakes. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 24 Apr. 2015. Web. 7 Sept. 2016.

“Dog – Canis Lupus Familiaris – Overview – Encyclopedia of Life.” Dog – Canis Lupus Familiaris. N.p., n.d. Web. 22 Oct. 2016.

Morell, V. “How Do You save a Wolf That’s Not Really a Wolf?” Science. N.p., 2016. Web. 07 Sept. 2016.

Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife. “Gray Wolf (Canis Lupus).” Gray Wolf Population in the U.S. N.p., n.d. Web. 08 Sept. 2016.

United States. Eastern Timber Wolf Recovery Team. U.S Fish and Wildlife Service. Recovery Plan for the Eastern Timber Wolf. Twin Cities I.e. Minneapolis and St. Paul, MN: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 1992. 27-28. Print.

Vonholdt, B. M., J. A. Cahill, Z. Fan, I. Gronau, J. Robinson, J. P. Pollinger, B. Shapiro, J. Wall, and R. K. Wayne. “Whole-genome Sequence Analysis Shows That Two Endemic Species of North American Wolf Are Admixtures of the Coyote and Gray Wolf.” Science Advances 2.7 (2016): n. pag. Web.

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This entry was posted in Conservation Biology Posts, Conservation Editorials 2016. Bookmark the permalink.

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