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IWC: What, exactly, is the FWS proposing?

[large thumbnail url=”iwc-what-exactly-is-the-fws-proposing” filename=”news” year=”2011″ month=”06″ day=”20″] [thumbnail icon url=”iwc-what-exactly-is-the-fws-proposing” filename=”news” year=”2011″ month=”06″ day=”20″] Jess Edberg, Information Services Director for the International Wolf Center, wrote an article about the proposed delisting for the Western Great Lakes states of Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan.

On May 5, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) announced a proposal to delist all wolves in the Western Great Lakes (WGL) states of Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan as well as a 250 mile “dispersal zone” surrounding the wolf populations, which includes adjacent states.

The announcement did not come as a surprise to those who follow wolf population numbers and monitoring. The WGL wolf population has increased, and it has remained viable for almost two decades with numbers that have greatly surpassed USFWS recovery goals. Additionally, the USFWS as well as state agencies have agreed that all biological and social threats to wolf survival have been addressed — a key requirement for delisting.

However, the proposal not only announces the delisting of the WGL population of wolves, but it also includes a discussion of the USFWS’s “National Wolf Strategy,” which identifies the eastern wolf, Canis lycaon, as a new, distinct species of wolf.

Why did we not know about this new species of wolf before now?
Technological advances such as the use of molecular genetic analyses have contributed a vast amount of insight into how researchers conduct species identification.

Historically, wolves were classified based on similar physical traits (referred to as morphology), behavioral traits and ecological data about habitats and functions in the wild. This classification is referred to as taxonomy. For example, thousands of wolf skulls have been measured and compared over the last 200 years. The resulting data were used to classify wolves into various categories — putting “like with like” into metaphorical boxes that help us understand the ecology and biology of a particular species or subspecies of wolf.

Modern scientific tools allow researchers to delve much deeper than the superficial layers of physical traits. Genetic analysis not only reveals discrete genetic populations but also population distribution trends, migration patterns, mixing of different species (wolf, coyote, dog), when that mixing occurred and perhaps a glimpse into the evolution of a species.

The first of such genetic studies was published in 1991 (Lehman et al. 1991). Since then, numerous studies have been conducted and some are ongoing to determine the extent of genetic diversity among wolves of the world.

What seems to be confusing is why the USFWS has formally announced that it is accepting this new taxonomic addition of Canis lycaon before all other members of the scientific community publicly accept it.

Several of the current genetic research projects are corroborating that in general terms there are distinct genetic differences between the gray wolf (Canis lupus) and the putative eastern wolf (Canis lycaon). However, researchers, geneticists and biologists have not yet come to a consensus on reclassifying the two.

The USFWS says it has conducted its own analysis of the best available science on the subject and has concluded that the gray wolf subspecies known as the eastern timber wolf (Canis lupus lycaon) should be elevated to species status: the eastern wolf (Canis lycaon).

This conclusion was based on the opinions of a preponderance of scientists whom the USFWS consulted and on the available evidence at that time. This approach led the USFWS to propose a change in status to all wolves in the WGL because any kind of reclassification action of the Endangered Species Act (ESA) must be based on taxonomy. This new taxonomy allows for moving forward with the 1978 and 1992 recovery plans for the WGL wolves.

Both of these plans identified wolves as protected by the ESA except that wolves in Minnesota were designated as threatened, receiving a lower level of federal oversight.

Now, the USFWS is investigating what, if any, action is required to preserve the eastern wolf in the United States and Canada.

This investigation is separate from that involving gray wolf recovery, which is being proposed for delisting. This approach aims to update the current classification of all wolves under the ESA by including the eastern wolf.

What is important to consider is that the gray wolf and the eastern wolf are virtually indistinguishable to the naked eye. Genetic research shows that both wolves exist in the WGL as one mixed population. The behaviors, morphologies and ecological roles are basically the same for each species.

National Wolf Strategy
The USFWS’s National Wolf Strategy aims to assess wolf populations and determine whether they are appropriately protected by the ESA. Thus, the USFWS believes that regardless of what species of wolf lives in the WGL, the population as a whole is functional and stable and does not require the emergency protections the ESA provides.

Additionally, the putative eastern wolf’s (rather than the gray wolf’s) historical range extended from the WGL to the northeastern United States. As part of this strategy, a revision of the identified range of gray wolves in the United States will take place, removing ESA protections for gray wolves entirely from all or part of the 29 eastern states.

With the genetic and ecological data available, the status and historical range of the eastern wolf in North America will be addressed. Then, a separate status review will be initiated to determine whether a recovery plan through the ESA is called for.
The USFWS is also initiating status reviews of gray wolves in the Pacific Northwest and Southwest to determine the appropriate taxonomy and listing status of the wolf in these regions.

What does this all mean?
Genetically, the modern discovery of a new species sets a precedent for determining species based on genetic identity. It also highlights the fact that although genetics may be distinctly different between the gray wolf and the eastern wolf, both wolves fulfill exactly the same role in their respective ecosystems.

Biologically, with both wolf species filling the same niche and being virtually indistinguishable to humans, state agencies will be able to manage wolves in the WGL according to current state plans once delisting occurs.

Prominent wolf biologist, Dave Mech, says “”It’s an academic issue. It’s nice to know what the origins are from the standpoint of curiosity, but from a conservation standpoint, it shouldn’t make any difference.”

Non- USFWS wolf biologists and geneticists agree that more research is warranted to piece together the genetic wolf puzzle. However, the way humans interact with wolves will not change.

According to the USFWS’s recovery plan for wolves in the WGL, they are considered recovered. Emergency protections that the ESA provide are no longer warranted and management will likely transfer to state agencies. However, many see the potential for recovery of a wolf species in the northeastern United States as a separate issue that should not have been combined in the May 5 proposal.

With such a complicated issue, it is likely that lawsuits will be filed challenging the USFWS on part of or the entire final rule (announcement), which is expected to come out by the end of this year. Already, several interest groups have threatened legal action questioning the authority of the USFWS to make a judgment on species distinction, removing protections for gray wolves from the rest of the country and a possible decision not to initiate a recovery plan for the eastern wolf.

What do you think? Share your thoughts with us on Facebook.

For more information on this proposal, two informational meetings are being presented on the issue in June. See resources below for more details.

Related links

USFWS delisting proposal and background information
Public informational meeting in Grand Rapids, MN MN on June 14
Public informational meeting in Marquette, MI on June 16

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