The highly successful reintroduction of western gray wolves to native habitats in Central Idaho (CID) and Yellowstone National Park (YNP) is testimony to how well a scientifically-based and carefully executed plan can succeed. The plan unfolded in large, high quality ecosystems that allowed wolves to flourish in the Northern Rocky Mountains, which began with 66 founding wolves with the initial reintroduction, and now estimated to be approximately 1,700. The challenge moving forward is the creation of wolf management plans that are viable, both biologically and politically. A critical issue all plans must address is the overall genetic health of the entire population. In fact, the recovery plan for delisting the wolf of the Northern Rockies required that populations be connected by genetically effective migration so that genes important to adaptation could be preserved and inbreeding minimized.
Mollie’s pack (Photo credit: D Stahler, NPS)
Our research group has lead the genetic analysis of the wolf recovery in the Northern Rocky Mountains (selected publications). A limitation of all the genetic tests done so far is that only a small portion of the genome is assayed. We now have new genomic technology that permits a “personal genome” approach for wolves that will potentially provide a map of genes directly important to survivorship and reproduction. These genes can then be surveyed in wolf populations to more directly assess genetic health.
To initiate this effort and pioneer genome-wide approaches in gray wolves, we propose to develop a complete genome sequence of a Yellowstone gray wolf, individual 302M, one of the most successful and renowned wolves to have ever existed. The technology and protocol developed for this wolf can then be applied to the larger population and through the use of phenotypic and natural history data on individuals, genes important in genetic health will be identified and monitored in Yellowstone and elsewhere. From this effort, we expect a much better understanding of the population size and environmental parameters that can sustain genetic health in wolf populations throughout the West and lead to better management plans. Additionally, with the incorporation of genetic data into wolf management plans, minimal viable population sizes can be determined and the impact isolation has on overall genetic variation can be accurately assessed.
Druid Peak pack (Photo credit: D Stahler, NPS)
This effort will also lead to new genetic tools for identifying and monitoring wolf populations and individual dispersal, as well as identifying and tracking problematic wolves. We currently have demonstrated technology that allows wolves to be identified from feces, saliva and hair samples. Consequently, DNA based forensic analysis of livestock kills, along with fecal surveys of the general area can identify wolves involved in livestock attacks and areas and packs to which those wolves belong. This will permit a more targeted approach for removing problematic wolves. Additionally, we will amass and curate a DNA database of wolves throughout the West allowing a map of wolf density and population size fluctuations as well as tying migrant wolves of unknown origin to their natal packs and close relatives elsewhere. This fine mapping of dispersal will identify critical corridors and better predict future population trends.
Bison hunt (Photo credit: D Stahler, NPS)