DNA of wolf de­clared ex­tinct in wild lives

The Morning Journal (Lorain, OH) - - FRONT PAGE - By David War­ren

Re­searchers say a pack of wild ca­nines found carry a sub­stan­tial amount of red wolf genes.

DAL­LAS >> Re­searchers say a pack of wild ca­nines found frol­ick­ing near the beaches of the Texas Gulf Coast car­ries a sub­stan­tial amount of red wolf genes, a sur­pris­ing dis­cov­ery be­cause the an­i­mal was de­clared ex­tinct in the wild nearly 40 years ago.

The find­ing has led wildlife bi­ol­o­gists and oth­ers to de­velop a new un­der­stand­ing that the red wolf DNA is re­mark­ably re­silient after decades of hu­man hunt­ing, loss of habi­tat and other fac­tors had led the an­i­mal to near dec­i­ma­tion.

“Over­all, it’s in­cred­i­bly rare to re­dis­cover an­i­mals in a re­gion where they were thought to be ex­tinct and it’s even more ex­cit­ing to show that a piece of an en­dan­gered genome has been pre­served in the wild,” said El­iz­abeth Hep­pen­heimer, a Prince­ton Univer­sity bi­ol­o­gist in­volved in the re­search on the pack found on Galve­ston Is­land in Texas. The work of the Prince­ton team was pub­lished in the sci­en­tific jour­nal Genes.

The ge­netic anal­y­sis found that the Galve­ston ca­nines ap­pear to be a hy­brid of red wolf and coy­ote, but Hep­pen­heimer cau­tions that with­out ad­di­tional test­ing, it’s dif­fi­cult to la­bel the an­i­mal.

Ron Suther­land, a North Carolina-based con­ser­va­tion sci­en­tist with the Wild­lands Net­work, said it’s ex­cit­ing to have found “this unique and fas­ci­nat­ing medium-sized wolf.” The sur­vival of the red wolf genes “with­out much help from us for the last 40 years is won­der­ful news,” said Suther­land, who was not in­volved in the Prince­ton study.

The dis­cov­ery co­in­cides with sim­i­lar DNA find­ings in wild ca­nines in south­west­ern Louisiana and bol­sters the hopes of con­ser­va­tion­ists dis­mayed by the dwin­dling num­ber of red wolves in North Carolina that com­prised the only known pack in the wild.

The red wolf, which tops out at about 80 pounds (49 kilo­grams), was once com­mon across a vast re­gion ex­tend­ing from Texas to the south, into the South­east and up into the North­east. It was fed­er­ally clas­si­fied as en­dan­gered in 1967 and de­clared ex­tinct in the wild in 1980. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Ser­vice in the 1970s cap­tured a rem­nant pop­u­la­tion in Texas and Louisiana that even­tu­ally led to a suc­cess­ful cap­tive breed­ing pro­gram. Those ca­nines in 1986 be­came part of the ex­per­i­men­tal wild pop­u­la­tion in North Carolina. That group has been de­clin­ing since peak­ing at an es­ti­mated 120 to 130 wolves in 2006. A fed­eral re­port in April said only about 40 re­mained.

An ad­di­tional 200 red wolves live in zoos and wildlife fa­cil­i­ties as part of cap­tive breed­ing pro­grams.

A fed­eral judge in Novem­ber sided with en­vi­ron­men­tal groups that ar­gued in a law­suit that ef­forts by fed­eral au­thor­i­ties to shrink the ter­ri­tory of the wild group in North Carolina were a vi­o­la­tion

“Over­all, it’s in­cred­i­bly rare to re­dis­cover an­i­mals in a re­gion where they were thought to be ex­tinct and it’s even more ex­cit­ing to show that a piece of an en­dan­gered genome has been pre­served in the wild.”

— El­iz­abeth Hep­pen­heimer, a Prince­ton Univer­sity bi­ol­o­gist in­volved in the re­search on the pack found on Galve­ston Is­land in Texas

of law. The judge ruled U.S. Fish and Wildlife also vi­o­lated the En­dan­gered Species Act by au­tho­riz­ing pri­vate landown­ers to kill the ca­nine preda­tors even if they weren’t threat­en­ing hu­mans, live­stock or pets.

The de­bate over red wolf pro­tec­tions could take on new di­men­sions with the dis­cov­ery on Galve­ston.

Suther­land said the Galve­ston ca­nines have ef­fec­tively quashed a decades-old im­pres­sion that red wolves were a feck­less preda­tor over­whelmed by the nu­mer­i­cal su­pe­ri­or­ity of coy­otes. He adds that the Galve­ston group has DNA that can’t be found in the an­i­mal’s cap­tive pop­u­la­tion.

“From a prac­ti­cal con­ser­va­tion bi­ol­ogy stand­point, these an­i­mals have spe­cial DNA and they de­serve to be pro­tected,” he said, ex­plain­ing that con­ser­va­tion ease­ments that re­strict de­vel­op­ment along parts of the Gulf Coast are an es­sen­tial first step.

A spokesman for U.S. Fish and Wildlife said the agency is un­able to com­ment dur­ing the par­tial gov­ern­ment shut­down. The Texas Parks and Wildlife Depart­ment said in a state­ment that the Galve­ston dis­cov­ery is “in­ter­est­ing,” but “we do not an­tic­i­pate any reg­u­la­tory changes or im­pli­ca­tions in Texas at this time.”

Kim Wheeler, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the North Carolina-based Red Wolf Coali­tion, cau­tioned that fur­ther study of the Galve­ston pack is needed.

“We can get ex­cited, but in my mind, we re­ally need to let sci­ence do its due dili­gence to de­ter­mine what this an­i­mal is,” she said, not­ing that red wolves can evoke strong feel­ings in peo­ple with live­stock or who have other con­cerns with their preda­tory na­ture.

Con­ser­va­tion­ists, mean­while, say pol­i­cy­mak­ers need to have a greater ap­pre­ci­a­tion for hy­brid an­i­mals. When the En­dan­gered Species Act was im­ple­mented in the 1970s, con­ven­tional wis­dom was that hy­bridiza­tion be­tween species — such as the wolf and coy­ote — was rare and to be avoided. But ex­perts say the think­ing on that has changed.

“Now we know hy­bridiza­tion is rel­a­tively com­mon in nat­u­ral sys­tems and does not al­ways have neg­a­tive con­se­quences, but the pol­icy hasn’t quite caught up with this no­tion,” Hep­pen­heimer said.

GERRY BROOME — THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS FILE

The par­ents of this 7-week old red wolf pup keep an eye on their off­spring at the Mu­seum of Life and Sci­ence in Durham, N.C. A pack of wild ca­nines found frol­ick­ing near the beaches of the Texas Gulf Coast have led to the dis­cov­ery that red wolves, or at least an an­i­mal closely aligned with them, are en­dur­ing in se­cluded parts of the South­east nearly 40 years after the an­i­mal was thought to have be­come ex­tinct in the wild.

GERRY BROOME — THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS FILE

A red wolf fe­male peers back at her 7-week old pup in their habi­tat at the Mu­seum of Life and Sci­ence in Durham, N.C.

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