Archive for the ‘red wolf’ Tag

To Be or Not to Be a Wolf   2 comments

October 4, 2016 – By

During a House hearing on wolf conservation, Rep. Debbie Dingell claimed “the science is clear” that red wolves are not “hybrids” between coyotes and gray wolves. But the science is not clear — and the latest research has tipped the balance of evidence in favor of the hybrid hypothesis.

If recognized as a hybrid, the red wolf could risk losing protection under the Endangered Species Act — an outcome hunters, landowners and ranchers advocate, in part, because red wolves and other wolf species prey on livestock and deer. The new research may also influence the status of other wolf species under the act, such as the gray wolf and the eastern wolf.

In order to be eligible for federal protection under the act, a plant or animal must be classified as a distinct species, including “any subspecies of fish or wildlife or plants, and any distinct population segment of any species of vertebrate fish or wildlife which interbreeds when mature.” However, the act lacks specific provisions for hybrids between endangered and unlisted species — making it unclear if the red wolf should continue to be protected.

At present, the red wolf is classified as a distinct species and protected under the act. The gray wolf is also classified as a distinct species and protected, but the coyote and eastern wolf, also distinct species, aren’t protected.

Scientists, legal scholars and government officials have debated the standing of hybrids under the act since shortly after its passage in 1973. Members of Congress continued that debate during a Sept. 21 House Natural Resources Committee hearing on the “Status of the Federal Government’s Management of Wolves.”

In an effort to quell the debate and advocate red wolf protection, Dingell, a Democrat from Michigan, offered what she called “a few facts” in her opening statement. For example, she said, the “science is clear” that gray wolves, Mexican wolves and red wolves “are not foreign imports or hybrids.” The science is relatively clear on gray wolves and Mexican wolves (a subspecies of gray wolf), but not on red wolves.

Dingell repeated her claim later in the hearing while questioning a witness, John Vucetich, a population biologist at Michigan Technological University. She said, “The red wolf is not a coyote hybrid, even though the two animals share common ancestry.”

Despite Dingell’s claims, both the ancestry of and conservation policies for red wolves remain unsettled. In the next section, we’ll provide some context regarding how the unclear ancestry of the red wolf affects its protection under the Endangered Species Act. We’ll also explain why the latest research — a study published in the journal Science Advances on July 27 — still doesn’t conclusively settle the hybrid debate.

Classification Complicates Conservation

In 1996, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service drafted a policy that outlined rules for deciding when hybrids should and shouldn’t be protected under the Endangered Species Act based on available research at the time. But there was disagreement over whether the policy was sufficient as written. To this day, the FWS and NMFS have neither formally adopted nor rejected that policy. As a result, the act still remains unclear on its protection of hybrids.

Gray wolf, USFWS

Meanwhile, researchers have continued to debate the family tree of North America’s wolf species and their closest relatives. As Charles Darwin himself hypothesized, different species can result from adaptation to specific environments, which gives an organism a distinct evolutionary lineage.

But sometimes distinct species interbreed, producing sterile or nonsterile hybrids. Mules, for example, are the sterile offspring of horses and donkeys. Among other animals, a number of wolf species and coyotes also interbreed, but can produce nonsterile offspring. These offspring then go on to breed with other wolves and coyotes – even with dogs in some cases.

Some scientists, such as the authors of the Science Advances paper, support the theory that there are only two distinct “wolf-like” species on the continent, the gray wolf and the coyote. Under this hypothesis, the red and eastern wolves are hybrids, the result of generations of interbreeding between gray wolves and coyotes.

Other researchers argue there are three species with distinct evolutionary lineages – the gray wolf, the eastern wolf and the coyote. Under this theory, the red wolf is considered a distinct population of, but the same species as, the eastern wolf.

Coyote, USFWS

And still others argue that there is a fourth species with its own separate lineage – the red wolf. These researchers claim red wolves have only recently undergone hybridization with coyotes in the wild, but that “pure” red wolves still exist in captivity.

In 1973, the FWS designated the red wolf an endangered species under the act and shortly thereafter began a captive breeding program with what it deemed 14 “pure” red wolves. The red wolf was extinct in the wild in 1980. In 1987, the FWS began reintroducing its captive red wolves into the wild in northeastern North Carolina. The number of wild red wolves currently tops 45 to 60, according to the FWS.

When red wolf reintroduction into the wild began, coyotes didn’t inhabit northeastern North Carolina. Today coyotes do roam these areas, putting these supposedly “pure” red wolves at risk for hybridization, says the FWS.

But as we’ve already explained, the latest research on wolf genetics suggests that red wolves weren’t a distinct species to begin with, but hybrids between gray wolves and coyotes. However, the authors of the Science Advances paper do offer a potential solution to the confusion their research may present for conservation practices.

To Be or Not to Be a Hybrid

Despite Dingell’s claim, the most recent research provides evidence to support the theory that both red wolves and eastern wolves are hybrids, not distinct species. In fact, Robert Wayne, an author on the Science Advances study and an evolutionary biologist at the University of California, Los Angeles, told us by email, “our paper did suggest both species were hybrids of gray wolf and coyote.”

Just two years ago, more research countered the hybrid hypothesis. A November 2014 reportproduced for the FWS by the Wildlife Management Institute on red wolf recovery efforts, stated: “Recent genetic data have cast doubt upon the hybrid origin hypothesis and the balance of evidence has tilted towards a North American canid assemblage composed of the eastern wolf, the red wolf, and the coyote as distinct” species. Though the authors add, “The hybrid origin hypothesis has not been conclusively refuted.”

However, previous studies had looked at “a limited fraction of the genome” of different wolf-like species, explain Wayne and his colleagues in their paper. In contrast, Wayne’s group analyzed the complete genomes of different wolf and coyote individuals, which gave the researchers a better ability to compare the hypothesis of “unique ancestry as opposed to hybrid origin.”

Red wolf, USFWS

Using this method, Wayne and his group found that both eastern and red wolves shared a great number of genes with gray wolves and coyotes — more than would be expected if they were distinct species with their own evolutionary lineages. In other words, red and eastern wolves had very few “novel” genes not found in either gray wolves or coyotes. In fact, red wolves had a higher proportion of coyote genes compared with gray wolf genes, the researchers concluded. Eastern wolves, on the other hand, had a higher proportion of gray wolf than coyote genes.

The proportions of coyote versus gray wolf genes found in red and eastern wolves, the authors argue, parallel the patterns of “European colonization and the conversion of woodland habitat to agricultural landscape” beginning in the late 1800s. This process began in the southeast U.S., where red wolves now live, only later reaching the Great Lakes region, the territory of eastern wolves, in the early 1900s, they explain.

Eastern wolf, © Queen’s Printer for Ontario, 2016

In other words, earlier stresses from human colonization could have resulted in decreases in gray wolf populations in the southeast U.S. and thus more hybridization between wolves and coyotes in this region. As a result, humans themselves may have heavily influenced the “south-to-north gradient” in proportions of gray wolf versus coyote genes seen in red wolves and eastern wolves.

Still, some wolf experts, such as Linda Y. Rutledge at Princeton University, argue that Wayne’s study doesn’t conclusively settle the debate, reported the New York Times. Some of the samples his group used may have been collected from wolves that are contemporary hybrids, as interbreeding between eastern wolves and coyotes and red wolves and coyotes has also occurred more recently.

Wayne also told us by email, “This does not mean that [red wolves] should not be protected.” Why? In his paper, he and his co-authors argue the “overly strict application” of classification to “support endangered species status is antiquated” because it’s often difficult to apply theoretical concepts like “species” and “subspecies” in practice.

What’s more important, the group argued, is the “preservation of evolutionary and ecological processes and the role of an endangered [species] in this dynamic.” In fact, hybridization “is one critical example of a process that may enhance adaptation and evolution in the rapidly changing environment of the modern world,” they add. Thus, eastern and red wolves shouldn’t be excluded from protection under the Endangered Species Act solely because they’re hybrids, the authors conclude.

While questioning Vucetich, the population biologist at Michigan Tech, Dingell also said that experts agree “the red wolf is a listable entity under the Endangered Species Act under any plausible scenario describing its evolutionary history.” This is accurate, but requires some context.

For example, a Sept. 6 report regarding the FWS’ Red Wolf Recovery Program summarized, among other things, the outcome of a U.S. Geological Survey workshop on red wolf classification and conservation, which took place in Atlanta between May 24 and 26: “Scientists and legal scholars attending the USGS workshop agreed that the red wolf is a listable entity [under the Act]; though they did not reach consensus on whether it is a full species, subspecies or a distinct population segment. But the report authors added, “This consensus must be considered tentative pending publication of their findings.”

Members of a different group — the red wolf recovery team — however, couldn’t reach agreement on whether the red wolf is a listable entity, the report states. This is due, in part, to the fact that, in addition to scientists, that team includes landowners who opposed red wolf recovery efforts because they believe the FWS has illegally released red wolves onto private land.

It’s also important to note that, while experts at the USGS workshop agreed tentatively that the red wolf is a “listable entity” under the act, this doesn’t necessarily mean the red wolf will actually remain protected. The Sept. 6 report noted that a culmination of reasons might lead the FWS to swing one way or the other on this decision, including whether or not continuing to protect red wolves in the wild and captivity will be “feasible” in practice.

So Dingell wasn’t completely off the mark on the scientific agreement over whether the red wolf is a “listable entity” under the act. However, she did stretch the truth when she said “the science is clear” that red wolves are not “hybrids” between coyotes and gray wolves. The science is not clear, and the latest research suggests both red and eastern wolves are hybrids. Thus, the classification, and potentially the conservation, of red wolves, still hangs in the balance.



Posted 10 October, 2016 by Wolf is my Soul in News/Nyheter, Wolves / Vargar

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Coyotes could be key to saving the endangered red wolf   1 comment

From:  The Post and Courier

by Bo Petersen


A red wolf in its pen at the SeeWee Visitors Center in Awendaw in 2003. Wade Spees/Staff/File


The biggest threat to red wolves continuing in the wild isn’t a lack of money or land. It isn’t landowner opposition. It’s the coyote.

But oddly enough, the nuisance coyote just might be the reason the embattled U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reintroduction program goes ahead, if it does.

That’s the head-shaker takeaway from a recently released review of the wolves’ recovery program. The review’s conclusions are expected to be deciding factors in whether the service keeps pursuing the 30-year-old program. The decision is expected after the first of the year.

The red wolf is a native animal and could be a stabilizing alpha species in an ecosystem getting overrun by invasive coyotes. The coyote has become a suburban menace.

The report doesn’t give much room for hope – calling for expansion of the reintroduction effort and more funding if it is to continue. But environmental groups supporting the wolf’s return are pushing that the wolf belongs in the countryside, to try to turn the decision.

“In the end, the red wolf is all we have left of the wolf in the Southeast. We can restore this cool, native wolf, or you’re going to have coyotes,” said conservation scientist Ron Sutherland, of Wildlands Network.

The red wolf once was the Lowcountry’s own, an animal as big as German shepherd, that moves with a slinking feral grace. Hunted as a varmint, the wolf was pronounced extinct in the wild in 1980, when only 14 captives wolves were known to be alive.

The recovery program was launched in 1987, largely as a wild breeding program at Bull’s Island in the Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge north of Charleston. Now, the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge in eastern North Carolina is the only place in the world where the wolves still run free.

The coyote problem is one of the chief concerns raised in the review of the program by Wildlife Management Institute, a private Kentucky based group. The concern is two-fold.

With a new night-hunting bill, South Carolina is inviting hunters to use almost any means to reduce expanding wild hog and coyote populations in the state.

First, wolves occasionally interbreed with the coyote, producing an animal that’s been called the coywolf. The hybrid is a larger coyote with more of the wolf’s jaw – capable of bringing down larger prey – and with potentially a lot less of the wolf’s wariness about living near inhabited areas like suburbs.

Already suburban communities around Charleston such as Sullivan’s Island are roiling with complaints about coyotes roaming. Researchers at the Alligator River refuge have launched efforts to keep re-introduced red wolves from interbreeding with coyotes there.

Secondly, there’s controversy among researchers just how genetically distinct the red wolf is from the coyote. The species share large portions of DNA that varies from animal to animal. Some researchers aren’t convinced the red wolves remaining really ought to be considered a distinct species.

Wolves under attack

The review is a periodic re-evaluation required under the federal Endangered Species Act.

On one hand, prospects for the wolves’ return appeared to be improving. The Alligator River refuge now has more than 100 wolves in the wild and about 200 captive. Fish and Wildlife biologists are looking at placing breeding pairs of wolves along remote East Coast islands as an alternative to the semi-captive program now used.

In this Oct. 6, 2011 photo, red wolves walk around their enclosure at the Wolf Conservation Center in South Salem, N.Y. The Wolf Conservation Center is raising and breeding endangered Mexican and red wolves. The animals roam in large pens on the 27-acre property, eating roadkill and whatever they catch.

Bull’s Island, where that approach started the recovery, is one of the places under consideration.

On the other hand, the program has been handcuffed by small budgets and staff – a shortage of both curtailed the Bull’s Island effort in 2005. Meanwhile, roving wolves are suffering a dire setback in the country outside the Alligator River refuge: They are being shot.

The native red wolf is so similar to the invasive coyote that at least some of the wolves are getting shot by mistake. A law passed recently that made it illegal to hunt coyote in an area around the refuge. And now, after years of relative acceptance, the wolves’ presence is being opposed by a group of landowners there, angry that they now longer can rid properties of the varmint coyote.

The review said the wolf’s distinct genetics need to be firmly established, and markers set for just how much DNA an animal must have to be considered a red wolf. Then, reintroduced wolves ought to be monitored for that marker – to see how much they remain wolves.

For a program already decisively squeezed by budgets and stirring new controversies, the needs for more wild sites, genetics and ongoing genetic monitoring is more than enough for managers to pull the plug, and restrict the wolf to captive sites.

Calls and emails to a Fish and Wildlife spokesman asking for comment were not returned. David Rabon, the longtime recovery program coordinator, has been re-assigned and is leaving the service.

‘Hold their own’

The pesky coyote, though, is prospering, and the wolves could be a prime weapon to keep it under control. Despite occasional, apparently “loner” interbreeding, wolf packs tend to run out coyotes and other deer predators. At the Alligator River refuge, deer herds have improved.

“There might have been a time when people said let’s not bring back the red wolf, but that paradigm has changed,” said Jeff Dennis, a local hunter who publishes the Lowcountry Outdoorsblog. “Now we have coyotes everywhere. Native critters have their place in the ecosystem. They will reclaim that place. I would think that red wolves could hold their own (against coyotes). It might take a long time and a lot of acreage.”

Spots like Francis Marion National Forest and adjacent Cape Romain could be big enough, he said.

That’s what wolf supporters are banking on. Wildlands Network already is talking with private donors to take on some of the cost of continuing the program, including educating landowners about the advantages, Sutherland said. But he concedes what he sees from Fish and Wildlife suggests they are pulling back from it.

“Yeah, it’s going to be tough,” he said. But “$5.4 million per year to manage three (wild) populations, I don’t think it’s too much to spend on an extremely rare species that’s down to its last 100 animals in the wild.”

The future of the red wolf

Among findings of the red wolf recovery program evaluation by the Wildlife Management Institute:

The primary challenges and impediments with the recovery program are: the need for redundancy in wild populations (in places other than Alligator River), (genetic) integrity, the impact of interbreeding with coyotes and the needed size of the landscape and (private land) ownership in the restoration areas.

The taxonomy (genetic difference from coyotes) of the red wolf remains unclear and the dominant ecological challenge to its recovery is (interbreeding) with coyotes.

The high cost and indefinite duration (of the recovery program) raise serious questions regarding the value of continuing this approach.

The original (Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge) area of 225 square miles was unrealistically small given the area’s habitat quality.

The project has demonstrated the captive red wolves can successfully be reintroduced to the wild and rear offspring.


Reach Bo Petersen at 937-5744, @bopete on twitter or Bo Petersen Reporting on Facebook.

NC coyote-hunting controls approved for red-wolf protection   1 comment

Red Wolf, captive specimen at "Parks at C...

Red Wolf, captive specimen at “Parks at Chehaw”, Albany GA, USA (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

From:  The State – South Carolina’s Homepage

The News & Observer (Raleigh, N.C.)November 13, 2014

Three conservation groups and the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission have agreed on new rules aimed at reducing the shooting deaths of endangered red wolves in five Eastern North Carolina counties by limiting the hunting of the wolves’ non-endangered lookalikes: coyotes.

In the five-county Red Wolf Recovery Area, nighttime hunting of coyotes will be banned, and special permits will be required for daytime hunting. The area is home to the world’s only wild red wolves, which have dwindled in recent years to an estimated count of 100.

The new rules are part of an agreement that settled a lawsuit by conservation groups accusing the Wildlife Resources Commission of violating the federal Endangered Species Act. The groups argued that by allowing coyote hunting, the state agency was responsible for the deaths of red wolves.

Hunting the wolves is illegal. But the animals are frequently mistaken for coyotes, and gunshot is the leading killer of red wolves.

“This settlement will advance the long-term protection of red wolves by reducing the likelihood that they will be killed by hunters who mistake them for coyotes, thereby facilitating species recovery,” said D.J. Schubert, wildlife biologist for the Washington-based Animal Welfare Institute, one of three plaintiffs in the lawsuit. “With only an estimated 100 red wolves remaining in the wild, each death by gunshot jeopardizes the survival of the species.”

Saving the wolves

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has sought to reintroduce the red wolf with a program that started in 1987 at the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge in Dare and Hyde counties. The red wolves’ gunshot death toll, 15 between 1987 and 2000, increased to 73 between 2000 and 2013.

The Wildlife Resources Commission has promoted trapping and hunting in recent years to reduce coyote attacks on livestock and pets. Across the state, hunters killed 27,000 coyotes last year.

A commission spokesman declined Thursday to comment on the new hunting rules or to say when they would take effect in the affected area: Dare, Hyde, Tyrrell, Beaufort and Washington counties.

The agreement was approved Wednesday in Elizabeth City by U.S. District Judge Terrence W. Boyle. The new hunting rules are a permanent replacement for a preliminary injunction Boyle issued in May, which temporarily halted all coyote hunting in the red wolf counties.

Under the new rules for the five counties:

—Coyote hunting remains illegal at night.

—Daytime hunting is legal only for licensed hunters, who also must have special coyote permits. Hunters must report coyote kills within 24 hours to the Wildlife Resources Commission.

—All coyote hunting permits in the five-county area will be suspended if two or more red wolves are shot during the same year on state game lands by hunters who have coyote permits.

After Boyle temporarily halted coyote hunting in the five-county area earlier this year, the Wildlife Resources Commission asked the Fish and Wildlife Service to reconsider its 27-year effort to restore red wolves. When the federal agency agreed to do so, it received more than 47,000 comments from citizens and organizations — including conservationists who support the program and Eastern North Carolina farmers who oppose it.

The Fish and Wildlife Service hired a nonprofit consulting group to evaluate the red wolf recovery program and to provide its recommendations by Friday. A decision is expected early next year.

Siceloff: 919-829-4527 or Twitter: @Road_Worrier


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