The Federal Status of Wolves in the Midwest and the East: Conflict on the Horizon?

In May of this year, the US Fish and Wildlife Service proposed creating a Distinct Population Segment (or “DPS”) of wolves in the Great Lakes Region, and removing wolves in this DPS from federal Endangered Species Act (ESA) protections (76 Fed. Reg 26086).  The “delisting” of wolves in the Great Lakes was recently discussed in another post on The Wildlife News, and generally enjoys widespread support by state agencies and the academic community.  However, the Proposed Rule, goes well beyond just removing wolves in the Great Lakes from federal protections; in fact, the Fish and Wildlife Service conducts a review of wolves’ historical range, and proposes the removal of gray wolves (C. lupus) from ESA protections in 29 eastern states, asserting that new genetic evidence indicates that a different species (C. lycaon) was present in these areas:

We also propose to revise the range of the gray wolf (the species C. lupus) by removing all or parts of 29 eastern states that we now recognize were not part of the historical range of the gray wolf. New information indicates that these areas should not have been included in the original listing of the gray wolf…we recognize recent taxonomic information indicating that the gray wolf subspecies Canis lupus lycaon should be elevated to the full species C. lycaon.

Importantly, the science that the Fish and Wildlife Service relies upon is very recent, and there is still substantial disagreement in the scientific community regarding the taxonimic status of canids in the eastern United States.  Thus, the proposed rule drew heavy criticism from the New York Department of Environmental Conservation, which asserted:

The proposed rule represents a fundamental, complex and far-reaching shift in federal wolf policy and in the Service’s  implementation of the Endangered Species Act. The proposed rule seeks to significantly alter fundamental precepts of wolf taxonomy based on a handful of genetic studies that do not enjoy broad support in the scientific community. The Service also proposes, for the first time, a new National Wolf Strategy that represents a dramatic departure from federal wolf management strategies that have existed for decades. The proposed National Wolf Strategy is based on the Service’s proposed massive re-ordering of wolf taxonomy; it would also, for the first time in more than thirty years, remove federal protection from gray wolves in the Northeast and essentially abandon the Service’s longstanding commitment to wolf recovery in the Northeast. (See the Memo).

Because the proposed removal of wolves in the eastern United States relies upon “unsettled” science, it puts the whole Rule at risk from a legal perspective; that is, a judge may find no flaw in the FWS’s removal of wolves in the Great Lakes, but might object to their removal from ESA protections in 29 eastern states–especially if new research contradicts the FWS’s claims regarding wolves’ taxonomic classification or their analysis of the historical range of the various wolf sub/species.   In such a scenario, the judge may be forced to invalidate the entire rule–keeping wolves in the Great Lakes listed.  From my perspective, the classification of wolves in the eastern US should be handled separately from the removal of wolves in the Great Lakes.  These actions affect separate populations of potentially different species, and thus, their statuses should be judged and handled in separate rules in order not to jeopardize the rule that delists the wolf population in the Great Lakes.

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Thanks to “WM” and others who noted that the FWS published an updated draft Final Rule.  Note, the updated Rule treats wolves in the Great Lakes region separately from wolves in the East:

We are separating our determination on the delisting of the Western Great Lakes DPS from the determination on our proposal regarding all or portions of the 29 eastern States we considered to be outside the historical range of the gray wolf… A subsequent decision will be made for the rest of the eastern United States.

The FWS also apparently is considering all of the wolves that historically occurred in the Great Lakes region to be “gray wolves” (i.e., C. lupus).  This is good news for those who want to see wolves removed from ESA protections in the Great Lakes.   The really interesting question (at least to me) is how will canids will be classified (from a taxonomic perspective) and treated (from a conservation perspective) in the eastern US?


  1. Jon Way Avatar

    The result is fairly predictable in the east. The feds are going to say eastern wolves used to live in the Northeast then they are going to say that the eastern wolf will just hybridize with eastern coyotes/coywolves and that they don’t warrant being on the ESA so they will delist and not force the states to do anything. They will ignore the fact that the wolf found in the moose dominated northern Northeast is likely the same as the WGL wolf in that it is a gray/eastern wolf hybrid – these larger wolves don’t hybridize with eastern coyotes/coywolves as far as recent research attests.

    In reality, this could be very simple in that the USFWS could force the NE states to protect all canids (of course including the eastern coyote/coywolf) so that naturally dispersing wolves (whatever the species) are protected. Some states, such as New York, claim they support wolf recovery (which is good), but then they do nothing to effectively protect them. The USFWS is doing the same thing. There are 2 main issues here: there are lots of shades of gray here in the east with the hybridization that takes place (unlike out west where it is either a coyote or western/gray wolf). But one thing is for certain: the eastern coyote/coywolf is not like the gray/eastern wolf hybrid and that we need this larger canid back here in the east. The messiness of this hybridization will likely be USFWS’ attempt/excuse to wash themselves of wolf recovery (except the ongoing work with Mexican and red wolves) in the US.

    My analysis of the situation:
    I do agree that Canis lycaon is a separate species. However, I do also believe that C. lupus x lycaon hybrids were originally present in this area, especially where moose live(d). This hybrid is currently what lives in the Great Lakes area. New York State is referring to the recent vonHoldt paper as the paper that counters Canis lycaon as a unique species and instead interprets the lycaon as coyote DNA which I don’t buy. I do believe that lycaon was/is a coyote-like wolf and is also the animal that mated with coyotes to produce the eastern coyote/coywolf.

    Some people lump Canis rufus (red wolf) with lycaon. Lets leave that out of the equation right now since that would be a SE USA canid not terribly relevant to the conversation. I do believe that lycaon comes in to northern New York and New England and has essentially no protection because it looks so much like the eastern coyote/coywolf. In fact, the reports of a large “coyote” that a hunter killed (say 60-70 lbs) is likely to be an eastern wolf. Thus, I do think there are wolves present and some get killed as coyotes. And I do think that some just mate with eastern coyotes/coywolves to produce a bigger eastern coyote hybrid (at least occasionally). But let me be clear: the eastern coyote/coywolf is by far and away the dominant canid in the Northeast with only occasional wolves present.

    I maintain that until the eastern coyote/coywolf gets more formal protection, NE wolf recovery (either lycaon or lupus/lyacon) hopes is meaningless. How can USFWS and the states say wolves are protected but do nothing to formally protect them? Out west it is very black and white (either a coyote or a wolf) but in the East there are many shades of gray (ie, many degrees of hybridization), meaning that wolves are even some type of hybrid. And although the eastern coyote or coywolf is a much diff’t animal than the western coyote, it is definitely not a wolf and it is quite simple for the USFWS: protect all canids in the Northeast and the wolf (either lycaon or lupus/lycaon) will return.

    1. Ralph Maughan Avatar

      Thanks for the analysis Jon.

      I agree there is little hope of restoring canis lycaon or lupus to the East.

      I am enthusiastic about the development of these large northeastern coyotes. I think they are under strong evolutionary pressure. With luck they will continue to evolve and begin attacking more and more whitetailed deer.

      From sources not related to the organized deer hunters, I believe much of the rural and suburban mid-west is overrun with deer. They degrade the habitat for other animals and spread lyme disease, something I’m glad I don’t have to worry about when I’m in the Idaho outdoors.

  2. WM Avatar

    If I understand the WGL final delisting rule which is to be published in the Federal Register on 12/28/11 (tomorrow), the issue JB raises has been addressed, at least as to keeping the decision on the status of any wolves in the 29 eastern states for another day. It also touches on the taxonomic classification issue.

    From the FWS Western Great Lakes wolves website is the following quote:

    ++The Service made two substantive changes from the May 2011 proposal. First, the Service is separating a decision on whether to delist the Western Great Lakes DPS from a decision on whether to delist all or portions of the 29 eastern states considered to be outside the historical range of the gray wolf. This rule finalizes the Service’s decision for the Western Great Lakes DPS. A subsequent decision will be made for the rest of the eastern United States. Secondly, the Service is not changing its recognition of the taxonomy of wolves in the Western Great Lakes. In this final rule, the Service considers all wolves in the Western Great Lakes DPS to be gray wolves (Canis lupus) and are delisting them as such.++

    The website also has a link to the (pre-publication delisting rule that will appear in the Federal Register 12/28, for those who wish to wade through the 247 page document).

    1. aves Avatar

      Agreed. The May proposal JB quotes differs greatly from the final decision. By making the GL and NE decisions separate I would think the USFWS has now removed the chance of any legal challenge to the NE ruling from impacting both decisions.

  3. Nancy Avatar

    An interesting read regarding the controversy:

    +Still, the data on wolf expansion offer some insight on the animal’s ability to thrive. In fact, with so much available food — that is, with so many available deer — Van Deelen’s calculations

    suggest that wolves could reproduce at such a rate that they could withstand a hunt that culled up to 30 percent a year.

    But he doesn’t recommend such action. Instead, he’d rather see the animals prove his calculations right or wrong. “I’d kind of like to see nature take its course,” he says. “I’d like to see what [population] level they arrive at on their own.+

  4. Doryfun Avatar

    If natural cycles are part of the concepts of ecology, with various predator prey population dynamics in constant flux as systems tend towards equilibrium, why are we now worrying about scrutinizing species, subspecies, and DNA so harshly?

    Whats natural anymore, anyway? Man’s influence over the planet has been so large (not many places left untouched) and significant, that we now have the magnifying glass out trying to determine which DNA to manage for, is highly questionable in my mind.

    Our collective history as humans is full of mixing up the pool, with various introductions of non-native fish and wildlife, on purpose. (brook trout, brown trout, catfish, crappie, blue gill, chukar, pheasant, etc.) But as soon as some critter gets in the system. planned or not, which carries heavy impact and comes into conflict with human values, then panic sets in and deems them an invasive or unwanted species.

    All of this tap dancing around with science by the USFWS in putting a microscope to DNA for potential changes of ESA listings, sounds more like an agency with a political shadow standing guard, and management ramifications more fishy than wolfy, to me. (science is never absolute)

    Fish and wildlife issues are always more about people and capitalism, than ecology and natural capital.

  5. Ralph Maughan Avatar
    Ralph Maughan

    The entry of sophisticated genetic analysis into taxonomy of species has really scrambled things.

    Taxonomy has been based mostly on morphology — the structure and form of a plant or animal both externally and internally. The idea has been that morphology and genetic structure are closely related, but now we know that is not necessarily true.

    We have also learned that non genetic factors can change the behavior and morphology of a species, or especially a subspecies, and these changes persist generation after generation.

    The recent study that the wolves from Canada released into Yellowstone have already been physically changed by living in Yellowstone Park and presumably in Idaho, Wyoming and Montana too is one high profile example.

    1. SEAK Mossback Avatar
      SEAK Mossback

      I agree. I’m fascinated by genetic relationships, particularly in tracing the history of species, but am not sure it should always be driving policy for the future. Fascinating examples in this area are brown bears that live in substantial isolation on some of our larger islands that have been described in one genetic study as being more closely related to polar bears than other brown bears on the coastal mainland. It’s a major clue to a fascinating history, but if you look at one (I’ve seen many) it doesn’t look or appear to function appreciably differently than brown bears with very different apparent ancestry — and is certainly more different from polar bears. If they disappeared or were extirpated from those islands, would it make more sense to reintroduce polar bears from their current range or brown bears with a more distant common ancestor that have adapted to a similar environment? The ABC bears have apparently adapted (perhaps relatively quickly, but probably in stages dictated by periods of geographic isolation in various habitats) from a common ancestor with polar bears to land-based life in a temperate rain forest environment, much like coywolves are adapting to the northeast US.

  6. Fraancis Avatar

    Even in third world countries wolves and the wild have better protection. Why waste millions of dollars in taxpayer money on conservation just to pull them off the endangered species list? So we can shoot game!!!


Dr. Jeremy Bruskotter is an associate professor in the School of Environment and Natural Resources at the Ohio State University where his research interests are centered around the human dimensions” of wildlife conservation and management. Jeremy is passionate about wildlife–at one time or another, he has called himself hunter, angler, and wildlife photographer. Most of all, Jeremy is concerned with bringing the tools and techniques of the social sciences to bear on pressing issues in wildlife management.

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