Researchers say a pack of wild canines found frolicking near the beaches of the Texas Gulf Coast carries a substantial number of red wolf genes, a surprising discovery because the animal was declared extinct in the wild nearly 40 years ago.
The finding has led wildlife biologists and others to develop a new understanding that the red wolf DNA has a remarkable ability to survive after decades of human hunting, loss of habitat and other factors had led the animal to nearly disappear.
“Overall, it’s incredibly rare to rediscover animals in a region where they were thought to be extinct, and it’s even more exciting to show that a piece of an endangered genome has been preserved in the wild,” said Elizabeth Heppenheimer, a Princeton University biologist involved in the research on the pack found on Galveston Island in Texas.
The genetic analysis found that the Galveston canines appear to be a hybrid of red wolf and coyote, but Heppenheimer says that without additional testing, it’s difficult to label the animal.
Ron Sutherland, a North Carolina-based conservation scientist with the Wildlands Network, said it’s exciting to have found “this unique and fascinating medium-size wolf.” The survival of the red wolf genes “without much help from us for the last 40 years is wonderful news,” said Sutherland, who was not involved in the Princeton study.
The discovery happened at the same time as similar DNA findings in wild canines in southwestern Louisiana. It raises the hopes of conservationists dismayed by the shrinking number of red wolves in North Carolina that are the only known pack in the wild.
The red wolf, which tops out at about 80 pounds, was once common in the Eastern and Southern regions of the United States. The U.S. government classified it as endangered in 1967 and declared it extinct in the wild in 1980.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) in the 1970s captured a small surviving population in Texas and Louisiana that eventually led to a successful captive breeding program. Those canines in 1986 became part of the experimental wild population in North Carolina. That group has been declining since peaking at 120 to 130 wolves in 2006. A federal report in April said only about 40 remained.
An additional 200 red wolves live in zoos and wildlife facilities as part of captive breeding programs.
Conservation groups have fought government efforts to shrink the territory of the wild group in North Carolina. A federal judge in November sided with the groups and ruled that FWS also violated the Endangered Species Act by allowing private landowners to kill the canine predators even if they weren’t threatening humans, livestock or pets.
The debate over red wolf protections could take on new dimensions with the discovery on Galveston Island.
“From a practical conservation biology standpoint, these animals have special DNA and they deserve to be protected,” Sutherland said, explaining that restricting development along parts of the Gulf Coast are an essential first step.
The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department said in a statement that the Galveston discovery is “interesting,” but “we do not anticipate any regulatory changes or implications in Texas at this time.”
Kim Wheeler, head of the North Carolina-based Red Wolf Coalition, urged further study of the Galveston pack. “We can get excited, but in my mind, we really need to let science do its due diligence to determine what this animal is.”