Feds mull whether to remove red wolf from endangered species list

One of the federal government's marquee programs to save an endangered species is facing extinction, as lawmakers reconsider the genetic history of the red wolf.

A decision by federal officials to delist the species would, by all accounts, amount to a death sentence for a wolf that once roamed the Southeast. Today, there are just 29 red wolves left in the wild -- a number that would be even lower were it not for exhaustive federal efforts and millions in taxpayer spending. But the question now is: Was the red wolf ever actually a distinct species?

"This is a case of well-intentioned biologists going back several decades, trying to bring back a species they believe existed," says Gary Mowad, a former deputy chief of law enforcement for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. "But it turns out now the science clearly indicates red wolves from the very beginning were nothing more than a hybrid between a coyote and a grey wolf. This animal is not an endangered species. This animal is a hybrid and should be delisted immediately."

Supporters are expected to fight, although the latest science is not on their side.

"The red wolves history will always be challenged," says the Red Wolf Coalition's executive director, Kim Wheeler. "All canids are a soup, there is nothing pure about any canid on this landscape, so to make the assumption or point out or specifically say that the red wolf is something that it's not, is ludicrous.

Since the red wolf was given government protection in 1967, U.S. Fish and Wildlife biologists spent almost 50 years and some $35 million trying to save it from extinction. The recovery program involves 44 zoos and almost 2 million acres of private land and federal refuge. But after trapping, captive breeding and releasing 132 wolves, the program is worse off today than when it started, with only 2 breeding pairs left in the wild.

"They're spending about $1.5 million a year. The federal government has had 30 years to make this experiment work, and it has failed," says Jett Ferebee, a North Carolina landowner spearheading the effort to delist the wolf. "Recent DNA analysis has shown it's merely a hybrid. It is 75 percent coyote, and 25 percent grey wolf."

After the red wolf was declared extinct in the wild in 1980, the USFWS attempted to save the species by trapping what it considered to be 400 pure red wolves in the bayous of Louisiana and East Texas based on what they "looked" like, not genetics.

Even Curtis Carly, the original FWS red wolf coordinator, said in 1979 the original 400 wolves "could not even be positively identified" because the species was "on the brink of extinction."

Biologists then used skull measurements, weight and markings to cull the 400 down to 12 "pure" pairs to begin the captive breeding program at Point Defiance Zoo in Tacoma, Wash. According to records, the dozen produced 81 hybrids in the first 10 years, and 216 between 1977 and 2002. Over that period, the agency released 132 red wolves into two national wildlife refuges in North Carolina.

"They absolutely invented a species and called it endangered," says program critic Scott Griffin, from the group Citizens Science.  “Fish and wildlife knew this was a hybrid from the beginning."

Faced with doubts, when wildlife officials inquired, the U.S. Solicitor General warned the agency in 1977 that hybrids are "not" protected by the Endangered Species Act.

"Extending the protections of the ESA to hybrids ...would not promote the purpose of Congress in enacting the ESA," Solicitor General Donald Berry wrote in an Aug. 2, 1977, opinion.

Berry is now a vice president at Defenders of Wildlife, which is suing the federal government to protect the red wolf hybrids. Backed by other conservation groups like the Red Wolf Coalition and the Southeast Environmental Law Center, the USFWS moved forward. But once in the wild, the wolves quickly bred with coyotes, producing an especially hardy "super hybrid" that multiplied faster than the conservationists could contain.

USFWS tried trapping and sterilizing the hybrids to stop their proliferation. It also went den hunting, euthanizing hybrid newborns using water buckets and hammers to kill the offspring. While considered inhumane, some animal rights advocates support the technique, sacrificing the coyote as a means of saving the wolf.

"It's very difficult, we've often been asked, 'Why can't they just let those animals live?'" said Wheeler. "So then, we have more hybrid genetics on the landscape. You really have to stay focused on what the goals of this program are."

The use of steel leg-hold traps was also controversial. In California, the Animal Welfare Institute is suing to stop their use, while in North Carolina it is suing FWS for failing to use the traps to stop hybridization.

"Consistent mismanagement by the FWS has led to a rapid decline in North Carolina's red wolf population, down from 130 just two years ago to fewer than 45 today," according to another plantiff, Defenders of Wildlife. "Never before has the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service so directly turned its back on an endangered species recovery effort."

Under fire, USFWS contracted with one of the world's top geneticists, Dr. Robert Wayne, at UCLA, to test the red wolf population. In 1991, he concluded: "Genetic characterization of these same animals with whole mitochondrial DNA genome restriction analysis found that they exhibited either coyote (84 percent) or grey wolf (16 percent) DNA and that morphological and genetic classifications often did not correspond." In other words, a red wolf may have looked like a red wolf, but genetically it was a hybrid.

Further analysis by Wayne, published in "Science Advances" supports his earlier opinion.

"The red wolf, which lives in the Southern U.S. ...are in fact coyote and grey wolf hybrids," Wayne told the Los Angeles Times in July.  “We found that the red wolves are about 75 percent coyote ancestry. There is no evidence for distinct red wolf species.”

Nevertheless, Wayne and his colleagues argue the red wolf deserves protection.

“We maintain that the ESA could be interpreted in a modern evolutionary framework, devaluing the Victorian typological concept in exchange for a more dynamic view that allows for natural selection," Wayne said.

Others claim the red wolf is not technically a hybrid. John Vucetich, a professor at Michigan Tech University, told Congress the species contains an "admixture" of genomic material from different wolves and doesn't deserve to be delisted, an opinion shared by  Steve Guertin, FWS’ deputy director of policy.

“We believe there is enough scientific evidence that the red wolf has been treated as and will continue to be treated as a separate species," Guertin told a congressional panel Wednesday. "That’s based on genetics, behavioral, taxonomic and other criteria."

Because of the lack of scientific consensus, and the hybridization, the FWS is transferring any remaining red wolves from private lands into the captive breeding program, where just 29 breeding pairs remain. "We need everyone's help to ensure this species is around for future generations," Cindy Dohner, the service's Southeastern regional director, told reporters in a conference call last week. As to the wolves true genetic history, she said it was "uncertain."

Wheeler and other supporters are not giving up.

"It is a unique species, the Fish and Wildlife [Service] has not strayed from that, and that's where we stand moving forward," Wheeler said.

As controversial as it is, there is precedent for allowing refusing to recognize hybrids. In 1981, only five Dusty Seaside Sparrows remained, all of them male. Biologists proposed mating them to a close relative. Even though future generations would have shared 98 percent of the same genetic material, FWS refused to protect hybrids and the Dusky Seaside Sparrow became extinct.