Restoration of genetic connectivity among Northern Rockies wolf populations


Mark Hebblewhite, Fax: 406 243 4557; E-mail:


Probably no conservation genetics issue is currently more controversial than the question of whether grey wolves (Canis lupus) in the Northern Rockies have recovered to genetically effective levels. Following the dispersal-based recolonization of Northwestern Montana from Canada, and reintroductions to Yellowstone and Central Idaho, wolves have vastly exceeded population recovery goals of 300 wolves distributed in at least 10 breeding pairs in each of Wyoming, Idaho and Montana. With >1700 wolves currently, efforts to delist wolves from endangered status have become mired in legal battles over the distinct population segment (DPS) clause of the Endangered Species Act (ESA), and whether subpopulations within the DPS were genetically isolated. An earlier study by vonHoldt et al. (2008) suggested Yellowstone National Park wolves were indeed isolated and was used against delisting in 2008. Since then, wolves were temporarily delisted, and a first controversial hunting season occurred in fall of 2009. Yet, concerns over the genetic recovery of wolves in the Northern Rockies remain, and upcoming District court rulings in the summer of 2010 will probably include consideration of gene flow between subpopulations. In this issue of Molecular Ecology, vonHoldt et al. (2010) conduct the largest analysis of gene flow and population structure of the Northern Rockies wolves to date. Using an impressive sampling design and novel analytic methods, vonHoldt et al. (2010) show substantial levels of gene flow between three identified subpopulations of wolves within the Northern Rockies, clarifying previous analyses and convincingly showing genetic recovery.