Conservation Genetics Center Leads Research on Yellowstone Wolves; Results to Aid with Other Endangered Species Recovery Efforts

Ten years after the federal government reintroduced gray wolves to Yellowstone National Park, the UCLA Conservation Genetics Resource Center is conducting research that will aid in understanding the dynamics that underlie successful endangered species reintroductions.

Under a contract awarded by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Yellowstone Park Foundation in August 2004, UCLA researchers are analyzing blood samples taken from some 450 wolves to determine mating and migration patterns and secure other key data. Results, which will help determine future wolf management policies, are expected in summer 2005.

"This is the most comprehensive genetic analysis of North American carnivores ever undertaken, and involves the most notable U.S. population," said Robert K. Wayne, professor of biology and co-founder of the UCLA Conservation Genetics Resource Center. "Through DNA testing, we can learn so much about the hidden lives of these wolves, such as who is mating with whom and how they move from one place to another, and help determine the conditions necessary for successful reintroductions of other species in the future."

Gray wolves once flourished in Yellowstone National Park and other parts of the northern Rocky Mountains, but a public bounty had eliminated them by 1940. Amid much fanfare, federal wildlife agents transplanted 66 wolves from Alberta and British Columbia, Canada, and took them to Yellowstone and parts of Idaho starting in January 1995. Today, more than 700 wolves inhabit these areas and northwest Montana, helping to restore the natural ecological order — for example, by controlling elk and deer populations that had overgrazed pastures and thereby harmed the habitat of other species.

Wayne — an expert in wolves, coyotes, domestic dogs and other canids — said the DNA samples will be analyzed for genetic relatedness, paternity and maternity, and a variety of genetic measures of diversity, and compared to other populations of gray wolves and canids on record at the UCLA Conservation Genetics Resource Center. Genetic analyses will be combined with data from field observations from a vast network of Yellowstone Park Foundation and federal volunteers.

One of the goals of the reintroduction effort was to sustain three distinct wolf populations in Yellowstone, Idaho and Montana. Wayne noted that the research will help determine whether there is significant gene flow between the populations — a factor that will influence future management policies and affect proposed plans to remove the Western gray wolf from the U.S. Endangered Species List.

"This is an unprecedented opportunity to address behavioral, ecological and conservation questions in what is arguably North America's premier carnivore," Wayne said.

The wolves are protected by the federal Endangered Species Act. Earlier this month, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said it would relax restrictions on the killing of gray wolves and give states more authority over management of wolf populations.

The UCLA Conservation Genetics Resource Center provides expertise, resources and a repository for generation and analysis of molecular genetic data for use in wildlife conservation efforts. Technology now allows DNA material to be extracted from non-invasive samples, such as fur and feathers found in the environment, and that material can be used to determine the genetic characteristics of wildlife populations.

Clients and partners have included state and federal agencies as well as foreign governments and students, other research universities and nonprofit groups. Among the center's current research projects are providing support for the Rocky Mountain National Park's study of mule deer genetics and chronic wasting disease; analyzing the social structure of the world's most endangered canid, the Ethiopian Wolf, in support of conservation efforts led by Oxford University; and setting up bird feather collection projects for U.S. national parks, forests and wildlife refuges. The center has what is believed to be among the world's largest collection of bird feathers — approximately 30,000 — dedicated for genetic and isotopic analyses.

The UCLA Conservation Genetics Resource Center is supported by the Department of Biology and Evolutionary Biology and the Center for Tropical Research at the UCLA Institute of the Environment. It was co-founded by Wayne and biology professor Thomas B. Smith, an avian expert who directs the Center for Tropical Research.

California's largest university, UCLA enrolls approximately 38,000 students per year and offers degrees from the UCLA College and 11 professional schools in dozens of varied disciplines. UCLA consistently ranks among the top five universities and colleges nationwide in total research-and-development spending and receives more than $750 million a year in research contracts and federal and state grants. For every $1 state taxpayers invest in UCLA, the university generates almost $9 in economic activity, resulting in an annual $6 billion economic impact on the Greater Los Angeles region. The university's health care network treats 450,000 patients per year. The university's health care network treats 450,000 patients per year. UCLA employs more than 27,000 faculty and staff, and has been home to five Nobel Prize recipients.

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