Bridgett M. vonHoldt1, James A. Cahill2, Zhenxin Fan3, Ilan Gronau4, Jacqueline Robinson5, John P. Pollinger5, Beth Shapiro2, Jeff Wall6 and Robert K. Wayne5,*
Protection of populations comprising admixed genomes is a challenge under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), which is regarded as the most powerful species protection legislation ever passed in the United States but lacks specific provisions for hybrids. The eastern wolf is a newly recognized wolf-like species that is highly admixed and inhabits the Great Lakes and eastern United States, a region previously thought to be included in the geographic range of only the gray wolf. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has argued that the presence of the eastern wolf, rather than the gray wolf, in this area is grounds for removing ESA protection (delisting) from the gray wolf across its geographic range. In contrast, the red wolf from the southeastern United States was one of the first species protected under the ESA and was protected despite admixture with coyotes. We use whole-genome sequence data to demonstrate a lack of unique ancestry in eastern and red wolves that would not be expected if they represented long divergent North American lineages. These results suggest that arguments for delisting the gray wolf are not valid. Our findings demonstrate how a strict designation of a species under the ESA that does not consider admixture can threaten the protection of endangered entities. We argue for a more balanced approach that focuses on the ecological context of admixture and allows for evolutionary processes to potentially restore historical patterns of genetic variation.