DNA of wolf declared extinct in wild lives on in Texas pack
A pack of wild canines was found frolicking near the beaches of the Texas Gulf Coast. The pack carries a substantial amount of red wolf genes. That's according to researchers. It is a surprising discovery. That's because the animal was declared extinct in the wild. That was nearly 40 years ago.
The finding has led wildlife biologists and others to develop a new understanding. They say that the red wolf DNA is remarkably resilient. This comes after decades of human hunting. It comes after loss of habitat. And it comes after other factors. All of these 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." That's according to Elizabeth Heppenheimer. She is a biologist. She works at Princeton University. She is 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.
There was a genetic analysis. It found that the Galveston canines appear to be a hybrid of red wolf and coyote. But Heppenheimer offered a caution. She said it's difficult to label the animal without additional testing.
Ron Sutherland lives in North Carolina. He is a conservation scientist. He is with the Wildlands Network. He 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." That's according to Sutherland. He was not involved in the Princeton study.
The discovery coincides with similar DNA findings in wild canines. These include others in southwestern Louisiana. They bolster the hopes of conservationists. They have been dismayed by the dwindling number of red wolves in North Carolina. They comprised the only known pack in the wild.
The red wolf tops out at about 80 pounds. It was once common. It could be found across a vast region. The region extended from Texas to the south. It went into the Southeast. And up into the Northeast. It was federally classified as endangered. That was in 1967. It was 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. It eventually led to a successful captive breeding program. Those canines in became part of the experimental wild population in North Carolina. That was in 1986. That group has been declining. It peaked at an estimated 120 to 130 wolves. That was in 2006. A federal report in April said only about 40 remained.
An additional 200 red wolves live in zoos. They also live in wildlife facilities. They are part of captive breeding programs.
A federal judge in November sided with environmental groups. They argued in a lawsuit. They claimed 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. They did so by authorizing private landowners to kill the canine predators. That was even if they weren't threatening humans. Or threatening livestock. Or pets.
The debate over red wolf protections could take on new dimensions. This could come with the discovery on Galveston.
Sutherland said the Galveston canines have effectively quashed a decades-old impression. It led some to believe 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. They deserve to be protected," he said. He went on to explain 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 was 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 is executive director of the Red Wolf Coalition. It is based in North Carolina. She 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. She noted that red wolves can evoke strong feelings in people with livestock. Or those who have other concerns with their predatory nature.
Conservationists say policymakers need to have a greater appreciation for hybrid animals. The Endangered Species Act was implemented in the 1970s. Its conventional wisdom was that hybridization between species was rare. They said it was to be avoided. But experts say the thinking on that has changed.
"Now we know hybridization is relatively common in natural systems. It does not always have negative consequences. But the policy hasn't quite caught up with this notion," Heppenheimer said.