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Report: Distinct Red Wolf, Mexican Gray Wolf Genes Worthy of Protection

Scientific Conclusions Support Continuing Federal ‘Endangered’ Designations

WASHINGTON— A National Academy of Sciences panel today declared red wolves in the Southeast and Mexican gray wolves in the Southwest as distinct species and subspecies, respectively. The finding reinforces that both wolves should continue to be protected under the Endangered Species Act.

The National Academy panel investigated whether the wolves are genetically valid species and subspecies. It determined that both endangered canids are indeed distinct — as scientists and the federal government have been saying for years.

The study was mandated, in a 2018 appropriations law that funded the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, by Republican lawmakers in the Southeast and Southwest, the two regions where the wolves live. Those lawmakers want to strip red and Mexican gray wolves of endangered species protection through congressional riders.

That would allow a destructive bypass of the science-based evaluation of whether species are truly recovered, as required by the Endangered Species Act.

“This report’s confirmation is reassuring, but the study was really a waste of time that the wolves can’t afford,” said Michael Robinson, a senior conservation advocate at the Center for Biological Diversity. “We need to stop studying what these wolves are and instead focus on protecting them so we don’t lose their unique genetic heritage.”

Scientists have long noted distinct morphological differences between Mexican gray wolves and other gray wolves farther north, and between red wolves and gray wolves. Their smaller sizes, for example, are an obvious distinguishing trait. In recent decades scientists have examined the genetic distinctiveness of both wolves. Today’s report summarizes that research.

“For millennia Mexican wolves and red wolves were the signature canines helping to balance the wild lands where they live,” said Robinson. “To continue their vital roles as top-level carnivores, we need to change course, release animals from captivity to the wild and help ensure they not only survive, but thrive.”

Background
Only 24 known red wolves remain in the wild, surviving in five sparsely populated counties in eastern North Carolina. In June President Donald Trump’s Fish and Wildlife Service proposed a new management rule for the species that would shrink its protected range to 10 percent of the current size. It would also legalize the killing of any wolf that wanders out of the newly restricted area.

Mexican gray wolves were reintroduced to Arizona and New Mexico, and separately to northern Mexico. The two populations together number approximately 150 animals. All Mexican wolves stem from just seven wild-caught ancestors. Mismanagement of the U.S. population has worsened the close-relatedness of the descendants of those seven.

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