Is the Red Wolf a Listable Unit Under the US Endangered Species Act?

Robin S. Waples, Roland Kays, Richard J. Fredrickson, Krishna Pacifici, L. Scott Mills

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

21 Scopus citations


Defining units that can be afforded legal protection is a crucial, albeit challenging, step in conservation planning. As we illustrate with a case study of the red wolf (Canis rufus) from the southeastern United States, this step is especially complex when the evolutionary history of the focal taxon is uncertain. The US Endangered Species Act (ESA) allows listing of species, subspecies, or Distinct Population Segments (DPSs) of vertebrates. Red wolves were listed as an endangered species in 1973, and their status remains precarious. However, some recent genetic studies suggest that red wolves are part of a small wolf species (C. lycaon) specialized for heavily forested habitats of eastern North America, whereas other authors suggest that red wolves arose, perhaps within the last ∼400 years, through hybridization between gray wolves (C. lupus) and coyotes (C. latrans). Using published genetic, morphological, behavioral, and ecological data, we evaluated whether each evolutionary hypothesis would lead to a listable unit for red wolves. Although the potential hybrid origin of red wolves, combined with abundant evidence for recent hybridization with coyotes, raises questions about status as a separate species or subspecies, we conclude that under any proposed evolutionary scenario red wolves meet both criteria to be considered a DPS: they are Discrete compared with other conspecific populations, and they are Significant to the taxon to which they belong. As population-level units can qualify for legal protection under endangered-species legislation in many countries throughout the world, this general approach could potentially be applied more broadly.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)585-597
Number of pages13
JournalJournal of Heredity
Issue number5
StatePublished - Jun 27 2018


  • de-listing
  • distinct population segment
  • hybrid policy
  • hybridization
  • listing criteria
  • taxonomy


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