The science of classifying wolves (taxonomy) dates back to the early and mid 1970s (Mech 1974). Those findings claimed that there were 32 taxonomic subspecies of gray wolves around the world and here in North America, 24 subspecies. Oddly enough, the scientific community, although seemingly agreeable that there are far fewer subspecies than this, has yet to formally adopt a different position.
The Smithsonian Institution has a work of scholarship called, “Physiological (Morphological) Basis for Establishing a Northern Rocky Mountain DPS” (Distinct Population Segment) (pdf). It presents information that leaves us to question whether the wolves reintroduced into the Yellowstone National Park and Central Idaho regions were a good representation of the same wolves believed to have inhabited the same region many years ago.
I believe there are many who would argue that any wolf was the wrong wolf but we’ll save that argument for another time. The reason for this discussion could also have legal implications in determining whether bringing in the wrong wolf was in violation of the Endangered Species Act.
As part of the reintroduction process, it was assumed by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that the wolf that most closely resembled the wolf of the past was the one found in Canada. This assumption came mostly because of the “natural” migration of Canadian wolves from Canada into Northwestern Montana. It was then believed that reintroduction of the same wolf would only speed up the inevitable migration further south, believed to be “natural”.
However there seemed to be some disagreement as to which wolf subspecies was the right one.
The Brewster and Fritts (1995) publication in particular appeared to be a justification for the use of Canadian wolves for the YNP [re]introduction. Nowak (1995:397) determined the gray wolf historically present in YNP was more similar to the present wolf population in Minnesota, which he regarded as being most closely related to C. l. nubilus. Nowak also indicated the wolves to be released into YNP were from C. l. occidentalis founder stock in Canada. Morphologically, C. l. occidentalis is significantly larger than C. l. nubilus.
Another study, Wayne et al. (1995:406) seemed to agree with Brewster and Fritts (1995) in stating, “Among gray wolf populations, little genetic differentiation is apparent … The mitochondrial DNA analysis suggests there may not be a genetic basis for many past subspecific designations.” Under this assumption the notion of releasing Canadian wolves had four specific reasons.
1) comparatively speaking, little genetic and morphological difference exists among wolves from different geographic areas of the U.S.; 2) wolves taken from Canada could fill the same ecological niche in the recovery areas as did the wolves that historically occupied these areas [this is an assumption – if wolves that historically occupied YNP and central ID were a smaller subspecies or type, they may have differed somewhat in the composition of prey selection and thus, in their specific niche]; 3) the area of Northern Montana that Canadian wolves had colonized was not a great distance from YNP; and 4) Eventually, Canadian wolves were likely to disperse naturally into YNP and central ID, therefore, releasing wolves into YNP and central ID would merely facilitate a natural dispersal process.
But Smithsonian suggests that the smaller wolf historically was present in the YNP area and that any thought that the larger Canadian wolf was there at all resulted because humans killed off the smaller native wolf. In other words, due to characteristics of the wolf, geographical boundaries exist between subspecies. This raises questions as to whether the Canadian wolf, because its range was predominantly in a colder climate and grew to a large body size than the smaller wolf which roamed YNP, would naturally migrate southward.
For these reasons, it may have been a mistake to bring in the larger Canadian wolf.
The Canadian wolf is a larger subspecies adapted to a colder, more northerly climate. The introduction of the C. l. occidentalis type to more southerly latitudes outside its historic range is inconsistent with Conservation Biology principles, and has potential implications for species adaptation in the context of global climate change.
5) Finally, the Service has not rigorously explored the biological question and the legality under the ESA of “recovering” a taxon or type by expanding the historic range of a less similar type, when more closely related founder stock still remains available (i.e., the Minnesota/Wisconsin wolves).
There are many questions raised here. What becomes clear is that not enough taxonomic information was available prior to the wolf reintroduction and it’s doubtful that it exists today to still be able to know which subspecies of wolf existed in the Northern Rockies historically.
Some anecdotal evidence and historic documents suggest that a smaller wolf existed prior to extirpation. Some have even claimed no wolves at all roamed these areas and that they were only large coyotes, something similar to the larger eastern coyote inhabiting the northern areas of New England.
In haste did we rush into this wolf reintroduction without knowing important historical facts about which creature is native to the area and which is not? It might very well be so. If this was an attempt to artificially expand the range of Canadian wolves, a larger predator with a lust for larger prey, the regions wild ungulate populations could be in serious danger, say nothing of the effects on humans and livestock. The mismatch into the existing ecosystems and the presence of humans is bound to create problems.
Much of the wolf debate is so mired in political muck and endless lawsuits, this kind of scientific discussion is wasted paper and ink. It’s one thing to try to change what some perceive as the wrongs that man has done, it’s quite another to plow ignorantly into it without knowing the real ramifications of your decisions. Unfortunately what’s done is done and now it’s time to play clean up.