Although the Great Lakes gray wolf is officially recovered, new genetic analysis indicates it is not a pure wolf

~I think this is the most important wolf story in quite a while~

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Perhaps the greatest success story in terms of numbers is the recovery of the wolf in Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan.

Recovery began, however, before genetic analysis had advanced. Far more is known today, and the recovered wolf in the Great Lakes area is a mixture of the orginal wolves of the Great Lakes area, the Eastern Timber wolf (which seems to be a separate species very closely related to the red wolf) and coyotes.

Nevertheless, I think the restoration is a successful and important program because these large canids are on the ground fulfilling the same ecological function as the wolves of 200 years ago.

Genetic purity is important, nonetheless, and the only restored wolf population that clearly is all wolf are the wolves of Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming which came down from Western Canada beginning in the 1980s on their own accord and were also captured and reintroduced to Yellowstone Park and central Idaho in 1995-6.

The story below does not mention this, but what it means is that the most vital wolf population from the standpoint of conserving and restoring endangered speices is the wolves in these three states — the very states which are going to be given a nearlly free hand to kill them once they are delisted as long as each state maintains a token population of about 10-15 packs (how these will be counted is a matter of controversy).

Off Endangered List, but What Animal Is It Now? By Mark Derr. New York Times.


  1. timz Avatar

    Do you think this will have an impact on de-listing or subsequent court battles over it?

  2. Ralph Maughan Avatar

    I don’t know, but it certainly rearranges my thinking.

  3. kim kaiser Avatar

    In what way Ralph,??

  4. catbestland Avatar

    Could this mean that the wolf population in Id, Mt. and Wy are ever so much more important in that they are “genetically pure” and are the only pure source for the species available to other recovery efforts? Might this contribute to a legitimate argument to postpone delisting and hunting?

  5. Scott Smay Avatar
    Scott Smay

    “Could this mean that the wolf population in Id, Mt. and Wy are ever so much more important in that they are “genetically pure” and are the only pure source for the species available to other recovery efforts?”

    The ID/MT/WY wolves were reintroduced from populations in BC and Alberta, weren’t they? So those areas (and others, e.g. Alaska) would still be a source of “genetically pure” wolves.


  6. Chris H. Avatar
    Chris H.

    It may be that these wolves have been “genectically” impure from a long time back – as in pre-Columbian times. In which case whose to say exactly what the worth of the Midwest wolf is other than it fills an ecological niche very well and has historically. That should be sufficient. few North American animals were studied well enough from European invasion onward to make a decisive call on their validity as a species.

  7. JEFF E Avatar
    JEFF E

    Is there any word yet when the genetic family tree of the Yellowstone/Idaho wolves will be made public by UCLA?

    It has been out there for about a month now. I’ll send you a copy.

  8. Ralph Maughan Avatar

    From the ecological standpoint — what effect the wolves have — genetic “purity” is not relevant unless its changes their behavior, but from the standpoint of the Endangered Species Act genetic purity matters, and so the US Fish and Wildlife Service has been managing this just plain backwards by being the least tolerant with the most important wolves from the standpoint of the ESA.

    Nevertheless, the population of pure wolves grew from about 150** in Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming to over 1300. Perhaps this is enough to call it success, although I don’t.

    But giving wolf management over to Idaho and Wyoming with their plans to decimate the pure wolf population, and USFWS’s terrible record with the very rarest, the Mexican wolves, the matter has just become intolerable.

    **Note people like to say 67 wolves were reintroduced and they grew to 1300. They forget there were already about 90 non-reintroduced wolves in NW Montana in 1995.

  9. Justin Avatar

    Ralph, I’m sorry to come at you like this, but did you read the actual scientific article referred to in this article? It really was a poor body of work and the researchers misinterpreted their findings and now the media is eating it up. It’s been known for 15 years that the wolves in the Great Lakes region are hybrids—-this report is nothing new.

    I don’t want to rant about all the problems w/ the original scientific report, but the author’s went overboard big time on their conclusions (if you want me to elaborate I would be more than happy to).

    FYI—one of the authors of this study was the same guy who declared using DNA tests that the red wolf was a hybrid—–15 years later the general agreement is that he was wrong.

  10. Ralph Maughan Avatar


    Thanks for the information . . . and, of course, I didn’t read the actual paper because the story was in the NYT just yesterday.

    Regardless of the quality of the research in this paper, if the Great Lakes wolves are hybrids (as determined by better papers), the conclusion regarding the Rocky Mountain wolves is the same, namely for ESA purposes the delisting of this population and failure to allow the population to expand to suitable habitat in adjacent states makes the entire proposal defective, IMO, and perhaps in the eyes of a judge.

  11. Justin Avatar

    The status of the Great Lakes population has no bearing on the status of other wolf populations. The FWS manages wolves and other large, fragmented animals in population segments, not as a species as a whole, so the success or failure of one population does not influence the legal status of another. Otherwise, the Florida panther would have been delisted years ago. It doesn’t matter if there were 4500 or 0 wolves in the Midwest: the FWS doesn’t take that into account when assessing other populations. The only thing that matters for Rocky Mt. wolf delisting is whether that population meets its recovery goals (well, plus the state management plans, but that’s a whole other issue).

  12. Ralph Maughan Avatar

    That might be true as a legal analysis of the ESA as it is currently administered, but a new Administration might interpret it differently and better judges. Most groups interested in wolf conservation and restoration do not think the wolf is really, as opposed to legally, recovered in the Western United States. More importantly, the three states are contemplating a large reduction in the present wolf population of about 1300 animals in Montana/Idaho/Wyoming.

    The miniumum population recovery goals were set long ago before advances in genetics.

    There are also changing conditions. For example, we see the grizzly bear delisting in the Greater Yellowstone already in trouble due to high mortality of breeding female bears.

    There are several kinds of arguments. For example, legal arguments, scientific arguments, and politically effective arguments. Those trained in the biological and physical sciences usually don’t make the latter kind, but it is the latter one that motivates the informed citizen activist and the general public.

  13. Layton Avatar


    “Is there any word yet when the genetic family tree of the Yellowstone/Idaho wolves will be made public by UCLA”

    Is that anywhere on the Internet?? Could you post a link?


    – – – –

    Layton, the article was published about a month ago. More articles will follow. I’d put it up, but it is copyrighted, and so effectively hidden from the casual public by the high wall of an expensive academic journal. I have always hated that about academic publishing — you want scientific ideas disseminated, but they appear in expensive professional journals.

    Ralph Maughan

  14. JB Avatar

    Justin says: “The status of the Great Lakes population has no bearing on the status of other wolf populations. The FWS manages wolves …so the success or failure of one population does not influence the legal status of another.”

    Justin, this simply isn’t true. The Secretary of Interior has, on multiple occasions, attempted to interpret the ESA such that a population of individuals can only be considered “significant” if it is important to the survival of the entire species. Thus, all populations of the species would have to be considered when listing/delisting any one.

    Although the courts have generally rejected this interpretation, in at least two cases the courts have upheld it (New Mexico and Colorado, following the New Mexico court). In fact, the discrepancy in rulings in the lower courts could push the Supreme Court to take up the matter–which, given its current makeup, would likely be bad news for conservation.

    More importantly, what constitutes a “significant portion of [a species] range,” as specified under the ESA is determined (at least in part) by the range of the species as a whole–that is, in relation to all other populations of that species. Thus, FWS/NMFS must always consider other populations when determining the status of a species or individual population segment.


  15. Justin Avatar


    You’re right, I mistated what I meant to say. You’re right that the Sec of Interior can impose a significant population ruling. However, all wolves are managed as separate subspecies and thus the delisting of the Great Lakes wolves has no bearing on the status of northern Rockies wolves because they’re treated as separate subspecies. Each subspecies may have expanded to occupied ‘a significant portion of its range’ but because those subspecies aren’t found in each other’s ranges they don’t influence the listing of each other.

    Besides, a ‘population’ and a ‘distinct population segment’ are two different things in ESA lingo. Technically the wolves in Rockies are three populations but they’re all listed under the same population segment. If one of the three populations crashed, it could influence the status of that population segment, but it wouldn’t influence other population segments e.g. Midwest, Mexican wolves, northeast.

  16. JB Avatar

    Justin, I see where you were coming from. On the first point I agree totally–assuming, of course, that FWS continues to list the subspecies separately.

    On the second point, I’m not sure I follow you? I understand the difference between a population and DPS…but how are the NR wolves three populations? You mean because they will be managed/have different population goals within the three states?

  17. Justin Avatar


    I’m pretty sure they are considered 3 populations because of the 3 states but you also have to remember how they got there. 1 pop was brought into Yellowstone, another into Idaho, and another naturally dispersed into northern Montana/Idaho from Canada. Someone can check if I’m wrong, but I’m pretty sure that’s why the Midwest DPS was delisted—it expanded from Minnesota into Wis and the UP and thus became 3 populations. I think 3 populations is the magic number for a DPS to be downlisted—I am 100% certain that’s what it is for red wolves so I’m assuming that’s what it is for the other DPS but I could be wrong.

  18. Wolfy Avatar

    So, am I missing something? Please pardon my ignorance on genetics and “pure species”, but isn’t this topic a little late for wolf delisting in the Great Lakes. The only purpose that this piece of news can have is to allow the hired guns of the Great Lakes states to wage a wholesale slaughter of the barely recovered distinct population segment. After all, according to this article, they apparently are just wolf-coyote hybrids that didn’t deserve protection in the first place. So the states will be free to eradicate them based on one scientific article?

    And I must correct one concept that seems to prevail the thinking in the Great Lakes. The US Fish and Wildlife Service gave over the management of the Great Lakes wolf population segment to the states years ago. By their own admission, the USFWS lost track of the real status of the Great Lakes DPS years ago. The Service wanted/needed to dump the management of the wolves on the states. They have washed their hands of the issues concerning wolves.

    I think too many folks put too much faith in DNA testing to begin with; its not the exact science that it is made out to be. The Great Lakes wolves look like wolves, they act like wolves, so why aren’t they wolves? What if a researcher discovered that a DPS of grizzlies were actually grizzly-black bear hybrids? Would they suddenly be considered “impure” and not deserving of any protections? What if some researcher proved that many bald eagles were actually crossed with golden eagles? Would a manager have to take a DNA sample of a particular bird before he/she could decide whether it required legal protection or not?

    It’s been proven that many Canada lynx are actually crossed with bobcats by their DNA. Should we get a blood sample of every suspected lynx before we decide if it requires protection? I think that this DNA “science” has gone too far. Someone needs to learn how to inject some common sense DNA into the researchers that rely so heavily on this “science” and into the politicians that use any news like this for the further destruction of our wildlife.

  19. Ralph Maughan Avatar

    I don’t know the wolf politics of the Great Lakes states very well, but it seems to me that this article doesn’t hurt the wolves there. There are officially recovered and delisted with good state management plans, at least good compared to ID,WY and Montana.

    Justin pointed out to me that the presence of coyote genes has been known since the early 1990s. I did some review of research and indeed it has been known. It was known during the period of full protection of these wolves.

    What I see is a failure to also protect and recover those wolf populations with uncontaminated or unique genetics — those of the Northern Rockies, the Mexican wolf, and the Eastern timber wolf of (mostly) Quebec, canis lupus lycaon or just canis lycaon (increasingly biologists seem to be thinking it is not a sub-species but another species of wolf).

  20. Justin Avatar


    Your statement on the hybrid issue is correct—- no one would argue that the wolves in the Great Lakes don’t act like wolves. The whole genetics issue is just so complicated but you have no idea how much genetics has helped in conservation planning, so don’t dismiss it so quickly.

    Also, you seem misinformed about the Great Lakes wolves. The states have been in charge of them since March 2007 and all 3 list wolves as protected species. In fact, at least in Minnesota, they won’t consider a hunting season until 5 years from delisting to see how the pop does over time. There are 3 times as many wolves in Minnesota than in Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming combined, so I think those states in the Great Lakes know what they’re doing.

  21. JB Avatar

    Justin, Wolfy:

    Justin is dead on regarding the management of GL wolves. FWS was the official authority until delisting in March of this year. In fact, I know that MN DNR just hired a full-time wolf biologist.

    Justin, DPS policy (in general) does not spell out a number of populations that need to be recovered–I think this must have been written into the red wolf recovery plan? DPS policy simply requires that a particular population of a species be “discrete” and “significant” and then establishes some criteria for determining if a particular population meets these standards.

    However, it does seem like three is the magic number when it comes to wolves.

  22. Ralph Maughan Avatar

    Wolf conservationists have been arguing for 2 years now that the DPSs the USFWS created in their last revision were wrong — defective.

    Just wanted to remind folks of that.

  23. Jim Avatar

    Ralph, what academic journal was that published in?

  24. Justin Avatar

    Thanks JB,

    I wasn’t sure about the other DPSs, but red wolves are definitely 3 populations and I think 250 wild individuals before downlisting can be considered.


    It in the latest edition of Biology Letters (published by the Royal Society of London) and was written by Leonard and Wayne.

  25. Jim Avatar

    Thanks Justin.


Dr. Ralph Maughan is professor emeritus of political science at Idaho State University. He was a Western Watersheds Project Board Member off and on for many years, and was also its President for several years. For a long time he produced Ralph Maughan’s Wolf Report. He was a founder of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition. He and Jackie Johnson Maughan wrote three editions of “Hiking Idaho.” He also wrote “Beyond the Tetons” and “Backpacking Wyoming’s Teton and Washakie Wilderness.” He created and is the administrator of The Wildlife News.

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Ralph Maughan