Eastern Wolves Deserve Recognition

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An October 2012 survey of studies in the journal North American Fauna, a publication of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, implies that genetics may matter both for the future of wolves nationwide and for biologists looking at how species get their start. Among other important conclusions, the survey seems to suggest: 

  • Biologists have debated the genetic status of Eastern wolves for decades.
  • Eastern wolves are a distinct wolf species.
  • A distinct species listing should imply that Eastern wolves be classified as endangered.

While wolf experts agree that there is a gray wolf, or Canis lupus, and the red wolf, Canis rufus, now found in North Carolina, disagreements range over whether there are anywhere from 8 to 27 subspecies of these wolves. “The lack of consensus among researchers on so many important issues related to the taxonomy (grouping) of North American wolves prompted the present review,” began the wolf report led by Fish and Wildlife Service biologist Steven Chambers.

Chambers and colleagues reported the “most contentious” debate among researchers centers on the Eastern wolf, a slimmer, streamlined wolf that ranges in size from about 62-77 pounds, now found only in Canada. Is the Eastern wolf, Canis lupus lycaon (LY-can), a subspecies of the gray wolf, or is it simply Canis lycaon, a species of its own?

With consideration of two decades of genetics studies, the review implies that Eastern wolves are, indeed, a separate species. Most likely, the genetics indicate they sprang from a ‘coyote-like’ ancestor several hundred thousand years ago, rather than directly from gray wolves.

“One thing that can be hard to understand is that different genetics researchers can disagree about what the genes mean,” says DeLene Beeland, author of the The Secret World of Red Wolves: The Fight to Save North America’s Other Wolf.  “With wolves, different researchers have looked at the same genes and disagreed about what they mean.”   According to Ms. Beeland’s book:

“…evidence presented by the authors of this 2012 taxonomy study was growing for the eastern wolf having evolved distinct from gray wolves. ‘I am not saying that it’s a done deal,’  study author Steve Fain said, but it’s very convincing to me.’  Fain, a  geneticist with the FWS Forensics Laboratory, said that if you accept the evidence for a small, deer-eating wolf in the East, then, ‘it’s clear that this canid was on the landscape prior to the opportunity to hybridize.’  Fain and his study authors chose to accept the Canis lycaon species designation and upheld Canis rufus designation for red wolves. But, they wrote that each wolf may be a subspecies of the same species – leaving the door open for future revision.” (p. 121)

Efforts to re-establish populations of red wolves in North Carolina and Mexican gray wolves in the Southwest have led to contentious political fights. As a consequence, the authors of the review are careful to say their conclusions are not the official position of their agency.

Although US Fish and Wildlife does seemingly acknowledge the Eastern Wolf (canis lycaon) in the Northeast, and while it is important to protect this species, we also believe it is just as important that they acknowledge the gray wolf (canis lupus) and protect this species in the Northeast, as well.   How do you manage one without the other?

 

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