Before commenting on any post I write about red wolves, keep in mind the following:
- I support the Endangered Species Act.
- I support wolf recovery.
- I am not a Libertarian or a Republican. I voted for Obama twice.
- I am not a climate skeptic.
When I write about my skepticism about this “red wolf” species, I think people get the wrong impression. If there were really good evidence that red wolves were a unique species from ancient North America, I’d be all for their conservation.
But that evidence isn’t there.
And the best evidence we have– genome-wide analysis– shows the animal to be a recent hybrid between the wolf and the coyote.
Is that worth our time and energy?
Consider this: there are actually confirmed highly endangered canids in this world.
Both the Darwin’s fox and the Ethiopian wolf have populations that are under 300.
Both of them live in countries were the amount of money being spent on red wolf recovery over could really make a difference.
There is also a definite unique subspecies of wolf in North America, the Mexican wolf, that could use some of the attention we’re paying to red wolves.
I am really bothered by the level of wishful thinking that goes into red wolves. There is a ton of romance about this animal being an ancient North American canid.
And that romance is eerily too much like the dog breed origin nonsense that bothers me so much.
Red wolves were founded from an obviously admixed population that was running free in Southwestern Louisiana and East Texas. Only 14 individuals from that population were chosen to found the modern red wolf population. There were no DNA samples that were taken from those animals. It was just assumed that they looked more like wolves than coyotes that they had to have been red wolves. Never mind that the old trappers in the area wrote of litters that had 70-pound and 25-pound individuals in them, which is the first sign of hybridization.
This animal is supposed to represent the blood of the Southeastern wolf population, and it may have a bit of that blood. But the wolf of the true Southeast was often black, not red. Black coloration in wolves originated from dog hybridization, which is far less common with coyotes than it is with wolves, and if the modern red wolf is so closely related to coyote, then its lack of black coloration suggests that it is not same animal at all.
We lost the Southern black wolf. We’ve also lost the big gray wolf of West Virginia and the greater Alleghenies region, which definitely was not a red wolf.
To waste money and time saving an obvious coyote hybrid is really an insult to those long gone animals.
The West Virginia wolf lived on wapiti and bison and was known for occasionally treeing settlers and killing their hunting dogs. I don’t think it was a little demi-coyote.
But it’s an ESA success story, but the science is really touchy.
And if it becomes more and more obvious that red wolves are nothing more than hybrids, then all the Tea Party anti-conservation types are going to have a field day. North Carolina, which is where the big “red wolf” range is, has been taken over by the Neanderthal* wing of the Tea Party movement. My guess is that if it we get another genome-wide study out that confirms that red wolves are recent hybrids, then there will be lawsuits–again.
And that’s going to cost money, money which could be used to save really unique flora and fauna.
This is why the ESA has to be based upon the best science.
You have to get it right, and while we’re trying to save species which have dubious status, we’re spending less time and money trying to save something really unique. When the red wolf was originally listed, the best science said it was a species, but science has a way of revealing truths that are not always what we expected.
This is why I wrote about the new science on the red wolf. This upset a few people. At least one called me a science denier, but it was he was denying science. The science was not in keeping with his romantic fantasy, so he accused others of censorship. Not unlike a creationist or one of those self-styled dog breed “experts.”
It’s true that wolves are charismatic fauna, and it’s easy to get the public to support programs that are involved in wolf recovery.
But when you have something this contentious in the literature, you’d better be careful in asking for ESA protections.
Although we can say that the ESA is a major success, we still see more and more species become endangered. Recently, the US Fish and Wildlife Service, listed the diamond darter as endangered. This fish used to be common in the Ohio drainage system. Now, it is found only in a stream that runs into the Elk River in West Virginia.
It’s a tiny little fish, and you’re not going to see the public outcry for it that you would see for red wolves.
Our priorities are always messed up.
Our mammalian prejudices and our dog-loving prejudices, which is really what makes wolves such important symbols of conservation, have distorted our ability to react to new challenges facing wildlife.
I am all for a strengthened ESA. I am for replacing it with an enhanced biodiversity law that protects ecosystems and niches as well as particular taxonomic populations.
But we cannot get there if we’re not careful.
I worry that with a resurgent right in all these states that have vulnerable species that anything that can be seen as foolishness on behalf of conservationists will be used against wildlife.
I think the red wolf recovery is one of those issues that definitely should be questioned.
I’m saying this as a friend.
Because I know what the enemy will say.
*That was an insult to Neanderthals. Neanderthals actually cared for their sick and injured.