Does it still deserve protection?
A new study of the complete genomes of 28 canids, including wolves, dogs, and coyotes, finds that the gray wolf is the only wolf species in North America, and that the eastern wolf and the red wolf are actually recent hybrids of gray wolves and coyotes.
The findings are relevant to a recent controversial decision to delist the gray wolf from the Endangered Species Act (ESA). The decision was based on evidence suggesting that gray never actually lived in part of their presumed range (the eastern states) — the wolves there are in fact eastern wolves, which have been considered a separate species.
According to the study, published in Scientific Reports, this reasoning behind delisting the gray wolf is incorrect.
“The recently defined eastern wolf is just a gray wolf and coyote mix, with about 75 percent of its genome assigned to the gray wolf,” said study senior author Robert Wayne from UCLA, in a press release. “We found no evidence for an eastern wolf that has a separate evolutionary legacy.
The authors believe that the gray wolf should maintain its endangered species status because it did in fact inhabit its originally listed range.
As for the red and eastern wolves, Wayne believes they still deserve protection, despite the fact that they are hybrids rather than unique species, because they still carry the DNA of the endangered gray wolf.
Though the ESA has been an effective piece of legislation, it does not offer guidance about the protection of hybrid species. Hybridization is “a natural and commonly occurring evolutionary event,” Wayne tells Science News, noting that the ESA has offered protection for other hybrid species, such as the Florida puma and western spotted owl.
"Our findings demonstrate how a strict designation of a species under the ESA that does not consider genetic admixture can threaten the protection of endangered species,” study lead author Bridgett vonHoldt of Princeton University explains in a press release, calling for more balanced approach to decisions about which species warrant protection.
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