Science + Technology

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

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Ten years after the federal government reintroduced graywolves to Yellowstone National Park, the UCLA Conservation Genetics ResourceCenter is conducting research that will aid in understanding the dynamics thatunderlie successful endangered species reintroductions.

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

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

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

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

One of the goals of the reintroduction effort was to sustainthree distinct wolf populations in Yellowstone, Idaho and Montana. Wayne notedthat the research will help determine whether there is significant gene flowbetween the populations — a factor that will influence future managementpolicies and affect proposed plans to remove the Western gray wolf from theU.S. Endangered Species List.

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

The wolves are protected by the federal Endangered SpeciesAct. Earlier this month, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said it would relaxrestrictions on the killing of gray wolves and give states more authority overmanagement of wolf populations.

The UCLA Conservation Genetics Resource Center providesexpertise, resources and a repository for generation and analysis of moleculargenetic data for use in wildlife conservation efforts. Technology now allowsDNA material to be extracted from non-invasive samples, such as fur andfeathers found in the environment, and that material can be used to determinethe genetic characteristics of wildlife populations.

Clients and partners have included state and federalagencies as well as foreign governments and students, other researchuniversities and nonprofit groups. Among the center's current research projectsare providing support for the Rocky Mountain National Park's study of mule deergenetics and chronic wasting disease; analyzing the social structure of theworld's most endangered canid, the Ethiopian Wolf, insupport of conservation efforts led by Oxford University; and setting up birdfeather collection projects for U.S. national parks, forests and wildliferefuges. The center has what is believed to be among the world's largestcollection of bird feathers — approximately 30,000 — dedicated for genetic andisotopic analyses.

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

California's largest university, UCLA enrolls approximately38,000 students per year and offers degrees from the UCLA College and 11professional schools in dozens of varied disciplines. UCLA consistently ranksamong the top five universities and colleges nationwide in totalresearch-and-development spending and receives more than $750 million a year inresearch contracts and federal and state grants. For every $1 state taxpayersinvest in UCLA, the university generates almost $9 in economic activity,resulting in an annual $6 billion economic impact on the Greater Los Angelesregion. The university's health care network treats 450,000 patients per year.The university's health care network treats 450,000 patients per year. UCLAemploys more than 27,000 faculty and staff, and has been home to five NobelPrize recipients.

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