Canis Soupus: Eastern Wolf Genetics and Its Implications for Wolf Recovery in the Northeast United States. (Canid Conservation)

By Fascione, Nina; Osborn, Lisa G. L. et al. | Endangered Species Update, July-August 2001 | Go to article overview

Canis Soupus: Eastern Wolf Genetics and Its Implications for Wolf Recovery in the Northeast United States. (Canid Conservation)


Fascione, Nina, Osborn, Lisa G. L., Kendrot, Stephen R., Paquet, Paul C., Endangered Species Update


Abstract

Efforts to restore wolves to the northeastern United States have been confounded by a new taxonomic proposal: that the wolf historically inhabiting this region was not, as previously thought, a subspecies of gray wolf commonly called the eastern timber wolf (Canis lupus lycaon), but rather a separate species closely related to the red wolf (Canis rufus) of the southeast United States. This hypothesis raises numerous biological legal, policy, and management questions about potential wolf restoration. While restoring wolves could complete a broken food chain by providing a natural predator for moose in the northern forest ecosystem, the process of wolf restoration in the Northeast is in its infancy. Further studies must address biological, sociological and economic impact questions, as well as answer the basic question of what wolf originally inhabited the northeastern forests?

Introduction

Efforts to restore wolves to the northeastern United States have been confounded by a new taxonomic proposal: that the wolf historically inhabiting this region was not, as previously thought, a subspecies of gray wolf commonly called the eastern timber wolf (Canis lupus lycaon), but rather a separate species closely related to the red wolf (Canis rufus) of the southeast United States (Wilson et al. 2000). This hypothesis raises numerous legal, policy, and management questions about potential wolf restoration. In addition, wildlife managers now have a basic biological question to consider when debating the merits of wolf reintroduction to New England and upstate New York: what wolf should be restored?

Wolves were extirpated from the Northeast by the end of the nineteenth century (Fowler 1974). In 1974, a year after passage of the Endangered Species Act (ESA), the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) listed eastern timber wolves as endangered, except in Minnesota where a remnant population was listed as threatened. In 1978, the Service developed a recovery plan for the eastern timber wolf. At that time, scientists believed that the eastern timber wolf had historically ranged throughout the Northeast and west to the Great Lakes region. The recovery plan identified several areas in the Northeast as potential wolf habitat, including northwest Maine and the Adirondack Mountains of New York. These areas remained in the recovery plan when it was revised in 1992 but the Service did not actively pursue northeast wolf restoration.

A recent proposal by the Service to declare a Distinct Population Segment for wolves in the Northeast (Federal Register 2000) has triggered renewed interest in wolf recovery in this region. If enacted, this designation would separate the Northeast administratively under the ESA from wolf populations in the Great Lakes states and require the Service to develop a new recovery plan for New England and upstate New York. Recent studies indicate there are adequate habitat and prey to sustain a healthy wolf population in this region (Harrison and Chapin 1997; Mladenoff and Sickley 1998), and several surveys indicate strong public support for wolf restoration (Responsive Management 1996; Downs and Smith 1998). However, the unresolved issue of taxonomy, while certainly not the only impediment to northeast wolf restoration, is complicating the prospect.

Previous taxonomic classification

In this article, we use the term eastern wolf to refer to the wolf that, by Nowak's description (1995), currently resides in southeastern Canada and formerly inhabited the northeastern United States. We also use the term western gray wolf to refer to what Nowak (1995) describes as Canis lupus nubilus, the larger wolf that formerly inhabited much of the western United States and much of Canada. Goldman (1937) classified the eastern wolf as Canis lupus lycaon, a subspecies of gray wolf, and for years its historic range was thought to be the northeastern United States as far west as the Great Lake states and north into southern Ontario and Quebec (Goldman 1944; FWS 1992; Nowak 1995). …

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