Going my way? Why wolves may need to start hitch-hiking

When a federal judge returned endangered species protections to wolves in the northern Rocky Mountains last year, one of the deciding issues was the fact that the wolves in the three sub-populations of Wyoming, Idaho and Montana had not achieved genetic connectivity - one of the Fish and Wildlife Service's own criteria for delisting.  Rather than working to address this problem, for example, by ensuring habitat corridors for wolves to travel through, the Service is issuing a new delisting rule with the simple clarification that they never meant to suggest that genetic exchange between populations needed to be natural.

Ed Bangs, the Service's wolf recovery coordinator, has been dismissing the importance of genetic connectivity for some time.  Back in February of 2008 he told Science magazine, "Connectivity can happen through a ride in the back of a truck."

Now the Service has taken this a step further by formally denying its responsibility to establish natural genetic exchange between the populations by stating that, if necessary, they can always maintain genetic connectivity through "human-assisted migration management."  More specifically, their October 28, 2008 proposed rule stated:

"We have never suggested, nor does the recovery goal require, that natural migration is the only approach to address (genetic connectivity)...Future managed genetic exchange could include relocating other wolf age and sex classes, cross-fostering young pups, artificial insemination, or other means of introducing novel wolves or wolf DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) into a recovery area if it were ever to be needed."

Essentially, the Service is claiming that they do not need to recover a natural, self-sustaining population of wolves.  Their answer to a lack of genetic connectivity is to perpetually manipulate the system - perhaps even through very invasive, unnatural means. 

Not to overlook the legal (and moral) implications of their proposed plans, but biologically this doesn't make much sense.  Let's put aside the more intrusive means of imposing genetic exchange and talk about the pick-up truck scenario. 

As most people know, wolves are highly social animals that live in packs, but only a few individuals within the pack reproduce.  Typically there is a dominant male and female (often referred to as the alpha pair) though there may at times be additional breeders.  Nonetheless, many pack members do not breed in any given pack.  Wolves are also territorial and often hostile to unfamiliar wolves.  Simply throwing a wolf in the back of a pick-up truck and moving him to a new location is no guarantee that the wolf will be able to form his own pack or be accepted into an existing pack - much less ascend to the role of breeder.  Allowing wolves to negotiate these complex social interactions by providing for the natural movement of wolves across the landscape is the only true solution.

But alas, this is the plan that the Service has issued.  We will certainly challenge this rule, but until then I guess the wolves better start polishing off their thumbs if they want to catch a ride on the back of the next pick-up.

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