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Expert Report Concludes Red Wolves Are Distinct Species

DURHAM, NORTH CAROLINA (March 28, 2019) – This morning, the wolf taxonomy committee of the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) released their final report on the genetic and taxonomic status of red wolves, declaring the animals to be a distinct species. As a distinct species, red wolves are therefore deserving of specific protections under the Endangered Species Act.

The report, produced at the request of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) after Congress charged them with conducting a taxonomic review of red and Mexican gray wolves, concludes that red wolves continue to deserve their status as a distinct species (Canis rufus), separate from coyotes and gray wolves. The authors find on page five of the report that “the available evidence from morphology, behavior, and ecology, combined with genetic evidence of a relatively deep divergence and the maintenance of some unique genetic ancestry, suggest that the most appropriate taxonomic designation for red wolves is as a distinct species that possibly has historical admixture.”

“The findings of the NASEM report validate everything we’ve been doing to try to goad FWS into taking better care of the remaining wild red wolves in North Carolina,” said Dr. Ron Sutherland, Wildlands Network’s chief scientist. “Now that the National Academy of Science experts have deemed the red wolf to be a valid species, it is time for FWS to stop looking for excuses and start revamping and revitalizing their stalled recovery efforts for the red wolf in the wild. With only about 25 free-ranging red wolves left in eastern North Carolina, the species only has a few years to go before it succumbs to extinction in the wild for a second and possibly final time.”

Red wolves were declared extinct in the wild in 1980, after the last dozen animals were captured in coastal Texas and Louisiana and brought into zoos for captive breeding. In 1987, the red wolves were reintroduced into the wild in eastern North Carolina, the first such reintroduction of a large carnivore anywhere in the world. The reintroduction was successful and the wild red wolf population rose to a high of 150 animals by 2006. However, there are currently as few as 20-25 red wolves left in the wild today, after several recent years of intense gunshot mortality levels have sharply reduced the population.

The genetic and taxonomic status of red wolves has long been controversial, and the debate over the origins of red wolves has significantly hampered efforts to build momentum to recover the species. Critics of the recovery effort have seized on the possibility suggested by some geneticists that red wolves are merely the result of recent hybridization between gray wolves and coyotes, arguing that red wolves therefore do not deserve the protections they currently receive under the Endangered Species Act as a distinct species.

“The FWS should immediately begin robust recovery of wild red wolves, starting with saving the remnants of the North Carolina population, using the best recovery tools at their disposal,” said Dr. Sutherland. “Wildlands Network stands ready to assist the agency in eastern North Carolina, as we’re already in the process of kick-starting landowner outreach and engagement on behalf of the red wolves. In order to address local concerns that the red wolves are affecting other wildlife populations, Wildlands Network has been running an extensive wildlife camera-trapping project in the recovery area since 2015. This year, we will be actively distributing cameras to landowners to better engage them in our efforts to document the relationships between red wolves and other species.”

“The Trump Administration needs to listen to the public, follow the science and restore this most endangered species,” said Susan Holmes, Wildlands Network’s Federal Policy Director. “During FWS’s public comment period in 2018, 107,988 people—99.9 percent of the total comments received—commented in favor of protection of the red wolf in North Carolina. Polls show that nearly 80 percent of North Carolina voters support restoring the red wolf in the state.”

The report also indicates that work still remains to be done to better characterize the full genomes of ancient canid specimens from the former range of the red wolf, to better illustrate how much genetic continuity there is between contemporary and historic red wolf populations.

“The NASEM report represents as robust and modern of an assessment of complex endangered species taxonomy questions as we’ve ever seen,” Dr. Sutherland said. “The authors, who were independent scientists not connected with any of the various existing ‘camps’ of canid geneticists around the world, did an excellent job of synthesizing the available literature and bringing in the right experts for testimony and questions.”

NASEM also conducted a review of genetic and taxonomic status of Mexican gray wolves, concluding in the report that Mexican gray wolves are unique and distinct enough to continue to warrant the wolves’ status as a subspecies of the gray wolf.

Media Resources

Wildlands Network has been conducting camera trapping in the red wolf recovery area since 2015, and we have photos of wild red wolves (except where noted as captive) available for your use here.

Videos of wild red wolves from the same cameras are here.

We have also placed tens of thousands of images of all of the wildlife we’ve observed in the red wolf recovery area here, a link that can be shared with the public.

The NASEM wolf taxonomy committee held a series of meetings, workshops, and webinars over the past year to aid in their fact-finding and deliberations for the report, most of which are available for the public to watch here. Several verbatim & relevant quotes from the expert presentations are available upon request to Wildlands Network.

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Wildlands Network envisions a world where nature is unbroken, and where humans co-exist in harmony with the land and its wild inhabitants. Our mission is to reconnect, restore, and rewild North America so life in all its diversity can thrive.

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