Par­tial genome of en­dan­gered red wolf lives on in ca­nines found in Texas

The Washington Post - - POLITICS & THE NATION - BY DAVID WAR­REN Jonathan Drew in Raleigh, N.C., con­trib­uted to this re­port.

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, Tex. 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 medi­um­size 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 made up the only known pack in the wild.

The red wolf, which tops out at about 80 pounds, was once com­mon across a vast re­gion, ex­tend­ing from Texas 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 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.”

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