The successful re-introduction of grey wolves to the western United States is an impressive accomplishment for conservation science. However, the degree to which subpopulations are genetically structured and connected, along with the preservation of genetic variation, is an important concern for the continued viability of the metapopulation. We analysed DNA samples from 555 Northern Rocky Mountain wolves from the three recovery areas (Greater Yellowstone Area, Montana, and Idaho), including all 66 re-introduced founders, for variation in 26 microsatellite loci over the initial 10-year recovery period (1995–2004). The population maintained high levels of variation (HO = 0.64–0.72; allelic diversity k = 7.0–10.3) with low levels of inbreeding (FIS < 0.03) and throughout this period, the population expanded rapidly (n1995 = 101; n2004 = 846). Individual-based Bayesian analyses revealed significant population genetic structure and identified three subpopulations coinciding with designated recovery areas. Population assignment and migrant detection were difficult because of the presence of related founders among different recovery areas and required a novel approach to determine genetically effective migration and admixture. However, by combining assignment tests, private alleles, sibship reconstruction, and field observations, we detected genetically effective dispersal among the three recovery areas. Successful conservation of Northern Rocky Mountain wolves will rely on management decisions that promote natural dispersal dynamics and minimize anthropogenic factors that reduce genetic connectivity.
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