Posts Tagged ‘red wolf’

red wolf female

Longtime readers of this blog know that I am a bit of skeptic on the validity of the red wolf as a species.

In the early days of this blog, I thought it was probably a primitive form of Canis lupus that interbred coyotes, which is why it has such coyote-like mitochondrial DNA.  I thought its similarities with the Indian wolf were awfully compelling, but I was always leery of suggestions that it represented a full species called Canis rufus.

But then we started getting full genome analysis on red wolves, starting in 2011, when the first comparative assay of red wolf, gray wolf, and coyote genomes was published.

This study showed that red wolves were hybrids between gray wolves and coyotes.  This creates an enormous problem for the red wolf’s protections under the ESA, for the language of the statute doesn’t allow for the protection of hybrids. 2011 was first year of Republican majorities in the House of Representatives since Obama’s election, and I noted at the time that it would not be long before conservative forces began to push the red wolf out.

Since that study came out, a group of landowners in Eastern North Carolina have come out with complaints about red wolves. At the time of that study, there were very few documented complaints about them, but now there is an organized movement. Sometimes there videos are a bit in poor taste, but they have recently figured out some pretty savvy tactics, such as playing up the carnage against coyotes, including nursing pups that are hybrids between coyotes and putative red wolves.

The biggest complaint these landowners have is that red wolves were released upon private property, which generally would bother most people.  These landowners worked hard on getting their issues before the North Carolina Wildlife Services Commission, which in 2015, voted on a resolution requesting the US Fish and Wildlife Service to end the program.

Then, two things happened in 2016, one of these was new full-genome comparison study, which I have written about quite extensively. It revealed that gray wolves and coyotes have exchanged genes across the continent, and yes, red wolves are mostly coyote and only partially gray wolf in ancestry.  A full genome comparison is a much better analysis than an assay of a genome, because the researchers were looking at a much fuller picture.

This makes the red wolf even harder to defend as a distinct species.

That same year, the  US Fish and Wildlife Service began rolling back its red wolf recovery program.

In 2017, the program’s standing was then on quite unstable ground. The election of a Republican president with a very pro-sportsman secretary of the interior pretty much meant that the red wolf would be on shaky ground.

In November of 2017, a Senate panel voted in a directive for the US Fish and Wildlife Service to delist the red wolf as part of a spending package that funds the Department of the Interior.

I’ve been following this story since that vote. I’ve been expecting this directive to appear in the various last minute spending bills that have gone through over the last few months.

It hasn’t, but there is still a lot of political pressure on the US Fish and Wildlife Service to drop the red wolf in the updated Red Wolf Recovery Plan, which will be out some time this year.

This animal the biggest clusterf*ck in the history of wildlife conservation on this continent, and its problems are even more hampered by sort of unwillingness to accept that this not a surviving lineage of an ancient North American wolf.

Most people who love red wolves love to attack the full-genome study from 2016, but in that study, there might yet be a way to save them.

The legal definition of a species in the ESA is as follows: ”any subspecies of fish or wildlife or plants, and any distinct population segment of any species of vertebrate fish or wildlife which interbreeds when mature.”

In that study that gets lambasted by red wolf advocates, there is section of note, which reveals a recent split between the gray wolf and the coyote. Most of the literature on gray wolf and coyote genetics suggested a million-year split from a common ancestor. That particular study found only about 50,000-year split, which is roughly equivalent to when extant forms of Canis lupus radiated across Eurasia and North America.

Therefore, one could make the argument that coyotes are a subspecies of Canis lupus, and the red wolf is a hybrid between two subspecies and not an interspecific hybrid.

Under that definition, the red wolf would meet the species requirement under the ESA.

Of course, this strategy will never happen. Coyotes are not regulated as proper game animals in most states. In mine, you can kill one at any time. There are no bag limits, and you can hunt them with lights from January 1 to July 31.

Wolves are not managed the same way. Indeed, in most of the US gray wolves are a listed species, and you cannot kill them. In the states that do have a wolf season, there are strict bag limits and tagging requirements.

The politicians will probably cut the red wolf off.  It is very unlikely that this animal will be able to survive as a pure species, even if it were shown to be a genetically distinct species, because it readily breeds with coyotes. And once coyotes show up anywhere, it is virtually impossible to reduce their numbers.

Further, the coyotes that are coming into North Carolina are also hybridized a bit. They do have some wolf ancestry, though not as much as the putative red wolves do.

So to keep the red wolf going, we have to kill off another canid that genetically quite similar to the one we’re trying to save.

It is rather perverse in a way.

I say this as someone who really does support the Endangered Species Act and the Fish and Wildlife Service, but the red wolf issues ultimately harm the credibility of the act.

And that’s why I am such a negative nabob about them.






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Congress could end red wolf recovery

Canis rufus

It should be noted that the bulk of the genomic data show that the creature called a “red wolf” is actually a hybrid between some now extinct population of wolves and coyotes. Indeed, the most in depth genome comparison study performed on wolves and coyotes not only revealed that “red” and “Eastern” wolves are hybrids, it also revealed that coyotes were recent derivatives from Eurasian wolves and not ancient North American jackals.  Thus, the whole population of wild Canis in North America is much more closely related than we assumed.

Most of the data supporting the red wolf’s validity as a species are based upon fossil and subfossil evidence, which tended to show that the creatures being bred for introduction in the wild look an awful lot like ancient North American wolves.

But it now seems that the animals running loose in North Carolina are actually wolves with lots of coyote ancestry.

That’s what the science is telling us, and as I noted back in 2011, when this evidence from genome-wide analyses was being published, that it wouldn’t be long before politicians noticed a problem and began to use red wolves to chip away at the ESA.

I support the ESA, but I’ve long thought that adhering to red and Eastern wolf paradigms could cause real problems with the act’s long-term viability.

I recently had the pleasure of reading Nate Blakeslee’s American Wolf, which is a biography of a Yellowstone wolf named “O-Six.”  O-Six was the breeding female of the Lamar Valley pack, a wolf widely photographed in the park. She was a great elk hunter and mother, and because she was so well-known in the park, she became a sort of celebrity.

O-Six died from a hunter’s bullet, and her death never would have happened had the Democratic-controlled Senate not allowed a provision in a government funding bill to pass, which overturned a federal judge’s ruling that stopped a proposal that would have allowed Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming to regulate wolves as a state matter.  It was allowed to pass in order to provide immunity to Montana’s incumbent Democratic Senator, Jon Tester, who was facing a tough re-election.

This political drama is carefully described in Blakeslee’s work, and although little was made of it at the time, this provision was the first time congress had intervened on ESA listing in this manner.

Flash forward to 2017, and it looks like the Republican-controlled congress is about to do the something similar to red wolves. Senator Lisa Murkowski has introduced a provision the bill funding the interior department that declares the red wolf extinct in the wild and cuts all funding for its recovery.

This is problematic on many fronts.

First of all, the Endangered Species Act was designed to use scientific evidence for listing and recovery efforts. For most of its existence, the US Fish and Wildlife Service has been left to use science for these efforts, but now congress has begun to intervene to affect endangered species policy citing political concerns only.

Part of the reason why congress is doing such a thing is that the US Fish and Wildlife service has pretty much been impervious to the growing data on what red wolves actually are. The bureaucracy still maintains Canis rufus as a species, but the evidence that it is a recently derived hybrid between the wolf and the coyote is pretty hard to ignore.

Whenever I’ve pointed out these problems, I’ve been called a wolf-hater and a right-winger and a Republican. I’m none of the three.

The problem is that wolves are political symbols.  Every wildlife conservation organization in the country uses wolves for fundraising. Wolves have two things going for them: they are the wild ancestors of dogs and they tend to recovery fairly quickly when not persecuted.  It is easy to turn the wolf into sort of the canine equivalent of the noble savage, a dog that lives in nature, wild and free, and with greater wisdom and intelligence than any mere cur of the street.

To others, the wolf is the federal government coming for your hunting rights, your farming enterprises, and your guns.

So we now have this dynamic in which our political issues with each other are being meted out over an animal.

This says much more about us than it does the actual biology of wolves and coyotes. We are fractious. We are at war with each other.

The romantic notions of a unique Southern wolf species has been racked convincing in depth genomic data that show it is hybrid have come to pass just at the same time that a resurgent right wing has taken over the US government at all three branches. This is a perfect storm for disaster for the Endangered Species Act.

Until the Republican majorities in congress are reduced significantly, the red wolf will ultimately be used to undermine the act.

It is a very sad state of affairs, but the US Fish and Wildlife Service clearly did a lot to anger sportsmen in Eastern North Carolina, as this thread clearly shows, and the Endangered Species Act will not last if this sort of implementation is ever repeated again.

No real solution for this problem exists. I would put money on the red wolf being delisted. I should be glad that the ESA has gone onto preserve other predators, like the Mexican wolf and Florida panther, but because it is happening in this fashion, it could be a real disaster.

And all because of this wolf, not a real species at all, but one in which many lines of nonsense on both sides have been written.






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I’m so glad these taxonomy issues are being raised on a popular science Youtube series:

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brush wolf

It cannot be overstated how much the discovery that coyotes are not as distantly related to wolves as we believed ultimately questions our entire understanding of the evolution of the Canis species.

The traditional understanding Canis species evolved from some form of Eucyon dog some six million years ago. Wang and Tedford, who wrote the most important book on the paleontology of the dog family, believe this was Eucyon davisi, which was the first of its genus to enter Eurasia. The genus Eucyon is where the common ancestor of the Canis dogs (including Lycaon and Cuon) and the South American wild dogs would be located. Eucyon dogs were small. Imagine them as being something like a black-backed jackal or a Hoary fox rather than a coyote.

Then, 5 million years later in the Southwestern US and northern Mexico, a coyote-like Canis evolved, which was called Canis lepophagus. This animal is sometimes considered the common ancestor of wolves and coyotes. It may be, but considering how close we now know wolves and coyotes are now, it’s not the most recent common ancestor. Canis lepophagus did migrate into Eurasia, where it either founded or is identical to Canis arnensis.

In Eurasia, several smaller jackal-to-coyote forms evolved. One of these was Canis estruscus,  which then evolved into Canis mosbachensis (which is called Canis variabilis in China).

Ron Nowak believed the red wolf was an offshoot of this wolf that wound up colonizing North America and then becoming isolated from the rest of Canis mobachensis when the ice sheets expanded. There was also a competing view that the red wolf was actually a remnant version of Canis edwardii or Canis priscolatrans (which were probably the same animal). This animal was roughly the size of a red wolf, but Nowak rejected it as a red wolf ancestor because it lived too early for what he thought were red wolf fossils.

The Eurasian wolf species evolved mosbachensis-variabilis, but the two forms of wolf shared habitat and likely exchanged genes, making it very difficult

The coyote’s evolution was never clear. It was thought to have evolved out of Canis lepophagus. It was thought that lepophagus evolved into edwardii, and then it began to become more gracile and smaller, eventually becoming the now coyote.  It’s now pretty clear that it evolved out of the Eurasian Canis lupus and not these endemic North American “wolves.”

It either evolved from the modern wolf, which evolved into roughly its current form 800,000 years ago, or it came from a late surviving mosbachensis-type wolves that were regularly crossing with modern wolves before they came into this continent. Maybe the remains that Nowak had been considering “red wolves,” were actually these ancestral wolves that were evolving into the modern coyote.

Maybe when this wave of wolves came back across from Eurasia, perhaps 50,000-100,000 years ago, it came into a world already dominated by a dire wolves, which already occupied the niche for large, pack hunting canids and this wave of Canis lupus evolved as the American jackal.  After all, the bobcat is just a diminutive Eurasian lynx that found itself in a very similar position when it came into this continent, and it evolved to be a smaller animal that generally hunts smaller quarry than its larger ancestor. Of course, the modern bobcat didn’t reach its current form until about 20,000 years ago, but it still was forced to adapt to a slightly different niche than its Eurasian ancestor.

In literature on the paleontology of Canis, there is a heated debate as to how these animals all fit. The conventional view is that the wolf evolved from Canis mosbachensis/variabilis through Canis etruscus, which may be the same thing as Canis edwardii/ Canis priscolatrans. Wang and Tedford contend that the coyote and wolf split from Eucyon.  The modern wolf evolved from Canis chihliensis, which was a large wolf-like canid. It spread into North America to found Canis armbrusteri, which then evolved into the dire wolf (Canis dirus) in North America and Canis gezi and Canis nehringi in South America.  In the Old World, another offshoot of chihliensis gave rise to Canis falconeri, which the supposedly gave rise to the Xencyon, which is supposed ancestor of the dhole and African wild dog. Another view holds that the Armbruster’s wolf (C armbrusteri) is descended from edwardii/priscolatrans (which may be the same as etruscus). This lineage then gave rise to the dire wolf and the two sister species in South America, thus descending solely from North America wolves.

All of these ideas come from paleontology, and they pretty much are done without looking very deeply into the studies that are examining the DNA of these species. It is pretty obvious from that literature that the notion that coyotes and wolves split at the time of the Eucyon ancestor is quite wrong. For that hypothesis to work, African of  wild dogs and dholes would have to be genetically closer to wolves than coyotes and golden jackals are. They aren’t.

But if the genome-wide analysis shows that coyotes are so much more closely related to wolves is true, then all these fossil and subfossil canids that are said to be the most recent common ancestor of wolves and coyotes simply aren’t.  Instead, all of these species that are classified in Canis are likely a mix of evolutionary dead ends, like the dire and Armbruster’s wolf, or could be hidden ancestors of extant canids that aren’t wolves or coyotes.

For example, black-backed and side-striped jackals diverged from the rest of Canis and its allies at about the same time that Eucyon was diverging from Canis. It is possible that there are many relatives of these particular dogs that are hidden in this vast sea of Canis fossils.

The new discovery about the coyote’s split from the wolf also means that any remains of North American canid that are listed as coyote that date to 1 million years before present are not coyotes. What they actually were is a very good question.

We’ve spent a lot of time assuming that coyotes and wolves were quite divergent. We know now that they really aren’t, but when we look into the past at all the “wolves” and “coyotes” that came before, we see how this genus became so successful. It can easily evolve into big game-hunting forms, but the real success is in its ability to assume the size and shape of the generalist predator. Phenotypic plasticity is a wonderful thing for a lineage to possess.

But the real message of the new discovery about wolves and coyotes should be is a cautionary tale about paleontology. Paleontology is a wonderful science, and it makes amazing discoveries every day, but when its faced with a lineage of animals where phenotypic plasticity and tendencies toward parallel and convergent evolution are commonplace, it is bound to make errors. Paleontologists aren’t examining flesh and blood that can have its molecules tested for relationships. They are measuring anatomical characters and determining phylogenetic relationships based upon the similarities of these characters.

Which works well.

Until you get something like wolves and coyotes, where there are many ancient fossil and subfossil remains that look like they could be ancestors of either.

But the DNA says they aren’t.

And paleontology would have problem catching the inverse. There are many species that we’ve discovered only through DNA testing. African butterfly fish in the Congo and Niger basins look identical to each other, but they have been isolated from each other for 57 million years. I have yet to see this species split into two, but if they were mammals, you could bet they would be placed in distinct species in heartbeat.

Paleontology is missing some really important things we’ve since found out through molecular analyses.

And paleontologists know this.

They are working with the data they have, and by definition, it’s going to be more incomplete than genetic studies.

Science is provisional. Different disciplines and methodologies are going to come up with different answers. It’s pretty amazing that one genome-wide assay study can wipe out so much literature in paleontology.

These debates have been raging for years.

And it turns out that everyone was actually wrong.

Update 21 August 2016:  It turns out that I missed a paper that actually did some limited DNA analysis and found that Canis nehringi was pretty much a South American dire wolf, as in it was likely the same species as the North American dire wolf. Canis gezi, however, was  more closely related to the modern maned wolf and had been incorrectly identified as a wolf. So let this stand as a correction to the error above.


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west virginia coyote

I’m currently reading John Lane’s excellent book, Coyote Settles the SouthIt is an excellent book, and I will be reviewing it here very soon. The whole time I’ve been reading it I thinking about my encounter with the male Eastern coyote I called in back in March.

He’s not exactly the same coyote that Lane is writing about. He’s a coyote of the gray woods, not the subtropical pine forests and river bottoms.

But in some ways, he is the same. He is the same creature that has adjusted to all that Western man can throw at him and thrived.

And he’s thrived at the expense of the wolves that once roamed over the Northeastern US and the South. He’s just the right size to live on a diet of rodents and rabbits but also has the ability to pack up and hunt deer. He can be an omnivore, enjoying wild apples and pears that fall to the ground, almost as much as he would if he came across a winter-killed deer.

The coyote is a survivor. I’ve written on this space several times that the reason he has thrived is because he has been here far longer than the wolves that once harried his kind. Until last week, it was assumed that the coyote split from the wolf some 1 million years ago. This million year split has been used for virtually every study that has examined the relationships between different populations or species in the genus Canis. It is used to set the molecular clock so that we can figure out when wolves and dogs split and perhaps give us some idea as to when dogs may have been domesticated.

This assumption has been directly challenged in a new study that was released in Science Advances last week. The paper examined full genome sequences of several different canids, and it can be argued that it pretty much ended the debate as to whether the red wolf and Eastern wolf are species. They aren’t. Instead, they are the result of hybridization between wolves and coyotes. Most of the media attention has paid attention to this discovery in the study.

It’s the most important practical implications, because the US Fish and Wildlife Service delisted the gray or Holarctic wolf in most of the Eastern, Southern, and Midwestern states in favor of protecting the Eastern and red wolves. Red wolves are called Canis rufus, and  Eastern wolf is Canis lycaon. With them being recognized as hybrids, this greatly complicates the issue of how to conserve them under the Endangered Species Act, which, as its name suggests, is meant to conserve actual species and not hybrids between species.

The authors of the study feel that these hybrid populations are still worth conserving, largely because the red wolf contains the last reservoir of genes belonging to the now extinct wolves of the Southeast.

But in order to make this work, we’re probably going to have to rewrite the Endangered Species Act, and that is not going to happen any time soon.

However, the finding in the study that is worth discussing more is that not only showed that red and Eastern wolves were not some relict ancient species of wolf. It is the finding that coyotes and wolves split only 50,000 years ago.

Using a simple isolation model and a summary likelihood approach, we estimated a Eurasian gray wolf–coyote divergence time of T = 0.38 N generations (95% confidence interval, 0.376 to 0.386 N), where N is the effective population size. If we assume a generation time of 3 years, and an effective population size of 45,000 (24, 25), then this corresponds to a divergence time of 50.8 to 52.1 thousand years ago (ka), roughly the same as previous estimates of the divergence time of extant gray wolves.

This finding means that the studies that use that 1 million year divergence time to set the molecular clock for all those dog domestication studies need to be reworked. This is going to have some effect on how we think about dog domestication, and although the domestication dates have been moved back in recent years, the actual split between dogs and wolves is likely to be much later than when we see the first signs of domestication in subfossil canids.

That’s one important finding that comes from this discovery that wolves and coyotes are much more closely related.

The other is that yes, it did pretty much end Canis rufus and Canis lycaon as actual species, but it probably also ends the validity of Canis latrans as a valid species. Coyotes could be classified as a subspecies of wolf. Indeed, they are much more closely related to wolves than Old World red foxes are to New World red foxes, which split 4oo,ooo years ago. And there is still some debate as to whether these two foxes are distinct species, because we’ve traditionally classified them as a single species. Plus, if we start splitting them into two species, we’re likely to find the same thing exists with least weasels living in the Old and New World. And the same thing with stoats.

And then it’s not long we’re fighting over the house mouse species complex.

But if we’re going to lump red foxes, it’s pretty hard not to lump coyotes and wolves. It is true that wolves normally kill coyotes in their territory, but it also found that wolves in Alsaska and Yellowstone, wolves that were thought to be entirely free of any New World ancestry, also had some coyote genes.

So the coyote, like the extinct Honshu wolf and the current Arabian wolf, could be correctly thought of a small subspecies of wolf. We know from paleontology that in both North America and Eurasia there were various forms of canid that varied from jackal-like to wolf-like, and although we know the jackal-like form is the earliest form, these two types have ebbed and flowed across Eurasia and North America. We’ve assumed that the jackal-like forms gave became the coyote and the larger wolf-like forms have become the gray, red, and dire wolves.

But what we’re looking at now is the coyote isn’t the ancient species we thought it was. It’s very likely that some ancestral wolf population came into North America, and instead assuming the pack-hunting behavior of Eurasian wolves, it tended toward the behavior of a golden jackal. When this ancient wolf walked into North America, it would have found that the pack-hunting niche was already occupied by dire wolves. There were many other large predators around as well, and evolving to the jackal-like niche would have made a lot more sense in evolutionary terms.

This is what the coyote is.

The pack-hunting modern wolf came into the continent and took it by storm, and the coyote exchanged genes with it. They lived together as sort of species-like populations in the West, but when wolves became rare from persecution following European settlement, the coyote and wolf began to exchange genes much more.

So with one study using complete genomes, the entire taxonomy of North American Canis is truly blown asunder.

And the implications for dog domestication studies and for the practical application of the Endangered Species Act could not be any more consequential.

Very rarely do you get studies like this one.

It changes so much, and the question about what a coyote is has become unusually unsettling but also oddly amazing.

I will never think of a coyote the same way.

The mystery is even more mysterious.



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As long-time readers know, I am a bit of a skeptic when it comes to the taxonomic validity of the red wolf.  This is particularly true when the only genome-wide analysis of wolves and coyotes in North America revealed that the creatures being conserved as red wolves were actually coyote/wolf hybrids that actually have only slightly more wolf ancestry than a typical Eastern coyote.

That said, there are a lot of individuals who have devoted a lot of time and energy and entire careers on red wolf conservation, but I knew that when that study came out, it would be just a matter of time before the politics of red wolf conservation would come to a head. After all,  North Carolina has just recently begun to have issues with Eastern coyotes, and although most of the coyotes in North Carolina are on the smaller side, it would be wrong to assume that there were no coyotes in North Carolina with wolf ancestry.  And it’s possible, considering that coyotes with wolf ancestry have been found as far south as Virginia.

Coyotes are pretty much blamed for everything that goes wrong in conservation biology in the East.  If deer hunters don’t bag a huge rack of antlers, then it’s obvious that the coyotes are killing them all. The more nuanced explanation is that coyotes do take quite a few fawns every year, but unless there is a heavy snow (which doesn’t happen in Eastern North Carolina), then it’s very unlikely that the coyotes are killing all the adult deer. Fawn recruitment is an issue, so a lot of game managers, especially in the South, do coyote controls. Coyote controls involve trapping, hunting them with foxhounds, and night hunting.

And it’s this night hunting of coyotes that caused the problem with the red wolf in North Carolina.  Night hunting involves going out at night with an electronic call and an amber light (just to show everyone you’re not spot-lighting deer), and then using those calls, which produce howls and prey in distress sounds, to lure a coyote or two  to its demise. Some people are adept howlers, and you can even buy coyote calls that produce different howls and prey in distress calls for that purpose.

Coyotes can be called in the day time, but if they live where there is significant hunting pressure, they tend to stay holed up in the brush until night falls.

Of course, most of the coyote hunters who do this sort of thing got into it to protect deer and other game numbers, and what usually happens is they find the coyote a much more challenging game species than any of the more typical game. Predator hunting becomes an obsession, a deep burning passion.  Some of these predator hunters actually want to protect coyotes from excessive hunting, just so they will have more coyotes to hunt.

And this is where red wolf recovery went south.

In the five counties where red wolves roam, there has been a long legal battle over whether coyotes can be hunted in red wolf range. In May 2014, a court-ordered injunction banned coyote hunting in those five counties, but by November, the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission created a framework that would allow some limited coyote hunting in the area.  Also, if one is legally hunting coyotes, one can kill a red wolf if it is taken by accident. I should note that red wolves look a lot like Eastern coyotes. They are the same color, but they are usually somewhat larger than the coyotes typically found in North Carolina. However, I can tell you that if red wolves were released here in West Virginia, you would never be able to keep them straight. We actually do have coyotes that approach red wolf size, which kind of makes sense. After all, the coyotes of the Northeast and the Mid-Atlantic are essentially the same thing as red wolves– coyotes with some wolf ancestry.

You would think that this rule alone would be enough to get red wolf conservationists screaming, but what came next is something akin to a neutron bomb going off in the red wolf community.

Last week, the North Carolina Wildlife Resources commission issued two resolutions to the US Fish and Wildlife Service. The first resolution declared that because the extant red wolves in North Carolina were so heavily derived from coyote stock that there were no more pure red wolves left and that the species was extinct in the wild as of 1980– which, means that the red wolf recovery program would end under the Endangered Species Act. Once a species is declared extinct, it gets removed from the Endangered Species List, and all recovery efforts are ended.

The second resolution calls for a removal of red wolves from private property.

In the 90’s and the first decade of this century,  the red wolf recovery program in North Carolina was celebrated as a successful wolf reintroduction in the East. These wolves lived in area where most confined livestock and poultry operations and crops comprised the main agricultural concerns. Very few opportunities existed for red wolves to cause problems with people.

But now that coyote hunting is gaining in popularity in the state, the red wolves finally hit snag. Of course, the Fish and Wildlife Service could only maintain the supposed purity of the red wolves running loose in North Carolina though an intense trapping program.  The population of canids called red wolves today derive from only 14 individuals, and as we know that most wild canids have a strong inbreeding avoidance instinct, red wolves will readily cross with coyotes. After all, red wolves are mostly coyote in ancestry, and those 14 were all derived from a population of coyotes and wolves that were running together in Louisiana and East Texas. In Peter Steinhart’s The Company of Wolves, the author recounts a government trapper in Louisiana who kept encountering litters of coyotes, where one pup would mature at 75 pounds, while another would top out at 25. This strongly suggests that the red wolf that exists now was a hybrid.  There were some rather primitive genetic tests done on these wolves, but these were quite unlike the vonHoldt paper.

What likely happened was that as wolves in Texas and Louisiana became rarer, they began to mate with coyotes. Because this wolf held on longer than in other parts of the South,  there were more hybrids with wolf-like features that were then declared a species. There was some dodgy paleontology work that connected these wolves with primitive wolf-like canids from North America. They found some unique biochemical and molecular evidence in the 14 wolves, and based on the dodgy paleontology, the primitive biochemical and molecular evidence, and the phenotype, they declared these animals to be a species.

I haven’t seen anything that any researcher has produced that falsifies the vonHoldt paper, which is the most extensive analysis of wolf and coyote genomes performed to date.

Now, I am a big supporter of the Endangered Species Act. I am also a supporter of wolf recovery programs, but I’ve come to think that this particular program is quite problematic.

The taxonomic value of the creatures we are currently calling red wolves is dubious at best. I’m open to some good evidence that contradicts the genome-wide study I linked to earlier, but I haven’t seen it. All I’ve seen is a critique of that study, which basically says you can’t use SNP’s to determine evolutionary relationships, but SNP’s look at much more of the genome than microsatellite clustering and mitochondrial DNA do– which all that the red wolf researchers have.

Also the big critique on the red wolves are hybrids study I’ve seen is they didn’t sample enough red wolves. The problem with that argument is when a population derives from only 14 individuals, you really don’t need a huge sample to get an idea of what they are.

This is one of those cases where I think the best science is on the side of delisting the red wolf.

And let’s worry about Mexican wolves.

Or maybe the diamond darter, a tiny fish that is now only found in the Elk River drainage of West Virginia.

But that’s just a little fish, living in a state where economic interests that generally oppose clean water have long held sway over the political process.

It’s not some ancient American wolf, which at one time was declared the root-stock of all wolves and coyotes.

Wolves are great symbols of conservation.  If left alone, they do recolonize their former range and often thrive. They are also closely related to domestic dogs. Indeed, dogs are derived from some Old World form of Canis lupus, and to the popular imagination, killing a wolf is like killing beloved pet dog. The wolf became sort of a “Fido as a Noble Savage,” which in itself is a pretty bad place for animal to be.

So because this symbolism that having hard discussions about wolves is difficult.

Protecting endangered species is more than raising hell whenever charismatic species might be threatened. It about preserving ecosystems and habitat, as well as all the unsexy little creatures, ones that will only gets nerds like me excited.

I would hate for this red wolf fiasco to set a precedent that state wildlife agencies can just complain to the US Fish and Wildlife Service whenever a particular endangered species is causing them problems. The Western states have even more endangered species that are conflicting with state interests. For example, it was recently determined that the sage grouse of southeastern Utah and southwestern Colorado are a unique species, and what’s more, it’s actually an endangered species. In November of 2014, it was decided that this species of grouse, called the Gunnison grouse requires Endangered Species Act protections. The state of Colorado just sued Fish and Wildlife Service over the listing. Now, it’s unlikely that these grouse are going to be delisted because Colorado complained about them, but depending upon how the courts interpret the law, it could get interesting.

Red wolves are just a bad case all around.

The lesson to conservationists ought to be that if you want to save a species, you better make sure that there are no huge, gaping questions about its taxonomic status.

I think the sad story here is that we’ve lost the Southern wolf, replacing it with wolves with a high amount of coyote ancestry, does not change this fact.

The Southern wolf is mentioned in the literature throughout region, and it was almost universally described as melanistic.

Here is photo taken by an early camera trap in Louisiana by Tappan Gregory in 1935.  It shows a black wolf with a larger head, broader muzzle, and smaller ears than what one finds in the modern “red wolf.”  (The current “red wolf” subspecies is call Canis rufus gregoryi, after Tappan Gregory.)

southern black wolf

Hat-tip to Sheila Collins for finding this photo.

That wolf is gone. Perhaps it lives on the wolf genes of the modern hybrid red wolf, just as the Northeastern timber wolf (Canis lupus lycaon) lives on the “coywolves” the Mid-Atlantic and the Northeast.

The thing about wolves, though, is they are coming back. Bit by bit.  Some wolves have incorporated coyote blood, as is the case with the Algonquin Park wolves, and this hybridization even occurred before Western man arrived in this continent. The vonHoldt paper on wolf and coyote genomes showed that Great Lakes wolves hybridized with coyotes at some point 600-900 years ago.

That means that wolves and coyotes, like modern humans and Neanderthals and Denisovans, exchanged genes with each other. Our popular understanding of evolution is that a species origination is one monophyletic population becoming genetically distinct and then losing chemical interfertility with the ancestral population and the sister taxa. However, evolution also has sister taxa exchanging genes a lot more often than we generally assumed. Wolf and coyote hybridization in North America has actually been underestimated as a driving force for the evolution for both species. We know that wolf genes have given Eastern coyotes an advantage when it comes to hunting deer and has likely enhanced their spread into the white-tail woods.

When wolves came into this continent from Eurasia, they came into land full of coyotes.  It is possible that they exchanged genes then, but there is no record for it.  Or maybe those early hybrid populations became extinct.

What we do know that is that hybridization occurred without the influence of Western Civilization and its attendant philosophy of wolf persecution, and in the case of some wolf populations, coyote genes could be a source of genetic rescue.

So the wolf that will come back won’t be exactly like the one that was extirpated. It will have genes from coyotes and probably domestic dogs.

And we should just accept it. After all, no one says that we should kill all the black wolves, even though that black coloration came from crossing with domestic dogs.

The wolf that comes back will be in a world where there aren’t as many elk or moose to hunt, but there will be plenty of white-tailed deer and raccoons. This wolf will have to be adapted to hunting this quarry, and it will have to be as wary as a the most paranoid of coyotes in order to survive in this new New World.

This is the approach that should have been used to restore wolves to the Lower 48. It avoids all the crazy debates about taxonomy, and it recognizes that ecosystems have been changed profoundly since 1492.

So if North Carolina succeeds in ending the red wolf program, maybe it will be a chance to go forward towards a twenty-first century wolf conservation ethic.

That’s certainly what would be best for the wolves, for wolves have to fit into our world now. They can do it, but we can’t get them there if we hold onto old ways of thinking.








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This documentary is about coyotes that have red wolf features and possible ancestry in East Texas. He could have gone with that angle and made me giddy.

Instead, well, you’ll see:


So red wolves speak of the creator?

But wait a minute…

There is a huge debate about what a red wolf is. The best genetic study I’ve seen on them suggests they are recent hybrids between a relict population of Southeastern wolves Canis lupus wolves) and coyotes. What made the red wolf was not God Almighty but the extinction of the subtropical American wolf, which was almost always black in color.

Everything about Canis speaks of evolution. Not only do we have the hybrid red wolf, but we have hybrids between golden jackals and African wolves (Canis lupus lupaster) in sub-Saharan Africa. Eastern coyotes also have a lot of wolf and dog ancestry.

Hybrid zones and muddled areas between species are exactly what we expect if there were common descent among similar species.

They are distinct species but they simply haven’t diverged enough from each other to lose chemical interfertility.

The whole red wolf debate is actually about evolution from this perspective.

I lean toward it not being a distinct species at all but a really recent hybrid. I don’t think proponents of its unique species status have produced enough evidence to suggest that is not a hybrid. Hybridization is extremely common in Canis species, and this seems much more parsimonious than the claim that it’s an ancient North American wolf– a living fossil or whatever else.

Plus, the DNA says it’s not. And by that I mean large samples of DNA, not microsatellites or just mtDNA evidence, which is actually all they have.

But the hybridization of Canis in the East is producing a new form of coyote. This is a canid that comes in many more colors, thanks to the sprinkling dog in its ancestry and much more able to hunt large quarry thanks to the bit of wolf blood coursing through its veins.

These are the questions that make wolves and their kin interesting.

But unfortunately, we didn’t get that here.

Plus, everyone knows that the Bible hates wolves. It was written by ancient herdsmen, whose livestock suffered under wolf depredations. It’s not an ecology book in the least.

European settlers killed wolves on this continent under the auspices of ridding it of a Satanic force. Wolves did prey upon man in feudal Europe, and our ancestors came here with a strong fear of the lupine.

Chester Moore and I grew up in very similar environments, but I’m glad my parents and grandparents were interested in Darwin. My dad got me watching Sir David Attenborough documentaries.

I am glad that I am comfortable with nature as it is.

Every time I look at a dog’s eyes, I see evolution.

Every time I look at a flying bird, I see a dinosaur.

I see every reason to accept the modern Neo-Darwininian synthesis. It’s all around me.

I don’t see any reason why I should accept the Bible– or any holy book– as true.

But that’s just me.










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