Wednesday, December 28, 2011

The hearty ingredients of Canis soup

The wolf is iconic and charismatic. We see him on t-shirts, on posters, and in fantasy novels. Conservationists do battle with ranchers to preserve populations of wolves. The coyote, on the other hand, is neither iconic nor loved. A newcomer to suburbia, he is feared as a suspected predator of cats, small dogs, and even small children. He is rarely seen on t-shirts; his name is not used to designate a rank of Boy Scout.
But now that we have the genetic tools to look at these animals’ genomes, it turns out that many of the populations of coyotes in North America are actually coyote-wolf hybrids, as are many of the populations of wolves. Unable to draw clear lines between these species, biologists have dubbed the populations of hybrids “Canis soup.”
What’s a Canis?
The term “canid soup” has also been used for this mess of wolf, coyote, and even dog genes that we find in some populations of canids. So what does Canis mean, and what is a canid?
These are terms related to the scientific classification of the species in question. Going through the hierarchy, we have Kingdom Animalia, Phylum Chordata, Class Mammalia, Order Carnivora, Family Canidae (canids), and Genus Canis. Wolves, dogs, jackals, and foxes belong to the family Canidae, but only wolves, dogs, and jackals (not foxes) belong to the genus Canis. We call the wolf-like canids “canines” and the fox-like canids “vulpines.”
As foxes do not interbreed with wolves, dogs, or jackals, what we’re talking about here is correctly Canis soup, or perhaps canine soup, but not canid soup.
Is it Canis or is it soup?
The more you dig into wild canines in North America, the more unclear it is where any species lines should be drawn. So who makes up our cast of characters?
The first ingredient in Canis soup is the charismatic North American gray wolf or timber wolf, Canis lupus, sometimes known as Canis lupus lupus to differentiate it from the dog and the dingo, who belong to subspecies. The gray wolf is the largest wild canine, at a 79 pound (36 kg) average weight. (Domestic dogs of some breeds, of course, weigh more than that.) Its coat coloring can vary from white through blond, brown, grey, and black. It is found in the western parts of North America.
Next is the Western coyote, Canis latrans. This animal is also known as the American jackal or prairie wolf, suggesting that there has been some confusion about how to distinguish canine species for some time. The Western coyote is a significantly smaller animal than the gray wolf, weighing in closer to 20 pounds (7-14 kg). Its coat color is less varied than the gray wolf’s, almost always a grey-brown as you see in the image here.
The range of the Eastern wolf or Algonquin wolf, Canis lycaon, is Ontario, Canada. This wolf is smaller than the gray wolf, and has a distinctive grey-red coat with black hairs along its back. We believe that this wolf was the original North American canine, and that Canis lupus and Canis latrans immigrated over the land bridge from Europe. There’s a lot of debate about the species status of C. lycaon, as many Eastern wolves appear to have significant C. latrans heritage. Some people suggest that the Eastern wolf is in fact a C. lupus/C. latrans hybrid, or, alternately, a subspecies of the gray wolf, C. lupus lycaon.
The Eastern coyote, spreading along the east coast of the United States, is significantly larger than his Western counterpart. It turns out to be a coyote/wolf hybrid, and it has been argued that it should more accurately be called a coywolf. His wolf ancestors seem to be Canis lycaon —  but then again, there is debate about whether C. lycaon is really different from C. lupus at all.
The red wolf or Southeastern wolf is subject to truly intense debate about species status. Is it his own species, Canis rufus? A subset of the gray wolf, Canis lupus rufus? Or a population of Eastern wolf, Canis lycaon? It has a beautiful red coat, and is smaller in size than the gray wolf. Its range was historically the southeastern U.S., but it went extinct in the wild by 1980. A founder population of 19 animals survived in captivity, and a reintroduction project in North Carolina was begun in 1987. Here the red wolf is today enthusiastically interbreeding with coyotes, leaving conservationists to wonder what they are conserving.
The three species of wild canines in North America today, then, are Canis lupus, Canis latrans, and Canis lycaon. But we really have just two soup ingredients, wolf and coyote. There are pure wolves (Canis lupus) and there are pure coyotes (Canis latrans), and there are populations that are mixtures of more or less wolf and more or less coyote (Eastern wolves, Eastern coyotes, and red wolves). There appears to be some dog mixed in there, too. You can think of gray wolf and Western coyote as ingredients, and everything else as soup.
Coyote flavor versus wolf flavor
The 2011 paper “A genome-wide perspective on the evolutionary history of enigmatic wolf-like canids” analyzed the various soup flavors out there and presented their findings in some easy-to-understand charts (below). Here, the different colors represent different amounts of each ingredient. The first chart describes the Eastern wolf, here referred to as the Algonquin wolf, which is mostly gray wolf (green) and joint wolf/coyote (yellow), but also has significant coyote (red). The second chart describes the red wolf; at a glance, it is obvious that the red wolf has a much larger percentage of coyote genes (again, red in this chart). These charts both use τ to denote the number of generations since the most recent admixture with another species.

The two coyote recipes pictured below describe two subpopulations of what I have described as the Eastern coyote; this particular paper considers them split into Northeastern and Southeastern coyotes. At a glance, these populations are mainly pure coyote (red), with big dashes of mixed coyote/wolf (yellow), and small but notable amounts of our friend the dog (dark blue, light blue, and pink).

Wild canine populations challenge us to let go of our obsessive need to categorize. Instead of slotting a canine population into a single species category, we might instead think of it as existing on a spectrum from “wolf-like” to “coyote-like.” A strongly wolf-like canid would be larger, sixty to ninety pounds. It would require a larger range, and would be a deerivore, subsisting off of larger game. It is likely to be a shyer animal, found only in more rural or wild areas. Conversely, a strongly coyote-like canid would be much smaller, fifteen to thirty pounds, with a smaller range. It might eat deer as well as rabbits and et cetera (probably a lot of et cetera, as coyotes are more willing to scrounge than wolves are). It would be more likely to be found in suburban areas, with a greater tolerance for human proximity. A given population of canines might fall anywhere on the spectrum between the two. The fact that a spectrum actually exists is beautifully demonstrated by the Eastern coyote, who has mixed coyote/wolf ancestry, is mid-sized between coyote and wolf, and has a mid-sized range.
What’s your preferred flavor?
Does the intermixture of various ingredients in the formation of soupy populations matter as more than a gee-whiz story? To some people, the answer is very much yes. The conservationists who are committing significant resources to the preservation of the red wolf don’t want to see the wolves that they reintroduce interbreed with coyotes. If the reintroduced wolf population blends into a coyote population, then are these resources actually being spent just to support a bunch of coyotes (who have been doing fine on their own)? At the same time, evidence shows that the founder population of 19 red wolves was already significantly coyotified, and we’re not sure how long it’s been since there have been any pure Canis rufus specimens in North America.
It is, of course, possible to think about the problem without asking for genetics to provide the complete answer for us. The red wolf is a red wolf, a beautiful, iconic animal that has lived in the southeastern United States throughout living memory. We know what the red wolf looks like (and that hasn’t been changing much, no matter what is happening to his genes). We also know that it is important in a particular environmental niche, and that hasn’t been changing much either.
Practically, the mixture of coyote genes into fragile wolf populations may be a good thing. Because coyotes are better at living on smaller ranges and in closer proximity to humans than wolves are, they are better adapted to the realities of North America today. As their genes mix into wolf populations, these populations become demonstrably more robust, more able to tolerate human presence, and able to survive on smaller ranges. It is possible, in fact, that coyote genes are exactly what are eventually going to allow a red wolf population to flourish without human assistance.
Conclusions, if we can make any
Does it matter that some of what we think of as wolves have coyote genes? I think the answer comes down to a cultural perception of the wolf as a romantic and charismatic creature, and of the coyote as a pest. Perhaps any mixture of the two is perceived as diminishing the wolf. A friend of mine once made this analogy: if you have an entire bottle of fine wine, and you pour just a teaspoon of sewage into it, now you have a bottle of sewage. Does any amount of coyote, no matter how miniscule, make the wolf impure, and less worth conserving than it was?
As a culture, I hope we can come to appreciate the strengths that the coyote brings to Canis soup, in its ability to coexist with humans in the modern world. It may be what saves populations of charismatic wolves from permanent loss. As we look at populations of canines in North America, we should learn to say that one is more coyote-like and another more wolf-like, on a spectrum from one flavor of soup to another, and appreciate the benefits of both.
Canis soup has been used before as an example of the blurriness of some species lines and the inadequacy of many existing definitions of a species, but it also provides some interesting insights into the fluidity of canid morphology and behavioral characteristics. How did something as large and wild as a wolf become something as variably-sized and tame as a dog? Moreover, how did this change happen (presumably) without a carefully planned breeding program? Why is it so easy to breed types of dogs with such different behavioral and physical characteristics, especially compared to the much more limited variety of breeds of cat, horse, or cow? The canine genome clearly has the capacity for expression across a startlingly wide array of phenotypes. The evidence of this variety has always been right before our eyes, but we are just beginning to understand its implications.
· Adams J. R., Leonard J. A., Waits L. P. Widespread occurrence of a domestic dog mitochondrial DNA haplotype in southeastern US coyotes. Molecular Ecology. 2003;12:541-546.
· Adams J. R., Kelly B. T., Waits L. P. Using faecal DNA sampling and GIS to monitor hybridization between red wolves (Canis rufus) and coyotes (Canis latrans). Molecular Ecology. 2003;12:2175-2186.
· Hailer Frank, Leonard Jennifer A. Hybridization among three native North American Canis species in a region of natural sympatry. PLoS ONE. 2008;3:e3333+.
· vonHoldt Bridgett M., Pollinger John P., Earl Dent A., et al. A genome-wide perspective on the evolutionary history of enigmatic wolf-like canids. Genome research. 2011;21:1294-1305.
· Way Jonathan G., Rutledge Linda, Wheeldon Tyler, White Bradley N. Genetic Characterization of Eastern ”Coyotes” in Eastern Massachusetts. Northeastern Naturalist. 2010;17:189-204.
· Wilson Paul J., Grewal Sonya K., Mallory Frank F., White Bradley N. Genetic Characterization of Hybrid Wolves across Ontario. Journal of Heredity. 2009;100:S80-S89.
· Zimmer Carl. What Is a Species? Sci Am. 2008;298:72-79.
Images: Gray Wolf (Image courtesy of vargklo at Wikipedia and Flickr); Western Coyote (Image courtesy of Rebecca Richardson at Wikipedia and Flickr); Eastern wolf (Image courtesy Christian Jansky at Wikipedia); Eastern coyote/coywolf (Image from Eastern Coyote Research); Red wolf (image from True Wild Life); Two recipes for wolf flavored Canis soup (vonHoldt, 2011); Two recipes for coyote flavored Canis soup (vonHoldt, 2011)

Monday, December 26, 2011

New Parks For Northern NM & Southern Colo.?

Interior: Region's Hispanic heritage worth honoring, preserving

By MATT HILDNER | The Pueblo Chieftain

ALAMOSA — When Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar comes to Adams State College on Jan. 4, he'll come armed with a report he hopes can convince Congress and the National Park Service that Southern Colorado's Hispanic heritage is worthy of their attention.

The 56-page survey argues that the settlement of a 5,100 square-mile area, once part of the Mexican frontier, made up a significant chapter in American history that has left a legacy found today in the region's, language, art, religion and agriculture.

The area includes parts of Alamosa, Conejos, Costilla and Saguache counties, reaches across the Sangre de Cristo Mountains to take in parts of Huerfano and Las Animas counties and extends south into two northern New Mexico counties.

It would be up to the Park Service, with direction from Congress, to determine whether it would be feasible or suitable to bring the area into the park system and whether it required direct management from the agency.

But the report looks at the history of the region, noting the impact of the five large land grants that were issued by the Mexican government to lure settlers to the area and fortify Mexico from Texan encroachment and threats from Native Americans.

While the Sangre de Cristo land grant remains very much in today's headlines as heirs continue the legal process to gain access to a portion of it east of San Luis, the report highlights the settlement patterns that sprung from all of them.

Often settled around a plaza, the communities included irrigation ditches, known as acequias, that watered long narrow lots.

San Luis, founded in 1851, would become the state's oldest town, while the People's Ditch that runs across the town's southern end to neighboring farms would mark the state's first water right.

The settlements also included common grazing areas and communal rights for settlers to gather firewood and take game.

And at the center of each plaza was often a church.

Salazar's study area includes the state's oldest parish — Our Lady of Guadalupe just north of Antonito and the oldest church in the San Acacio Mission just west of San Luis.

Moreover, the religious laymen's fraternities that sprung up across the region and were home to the Penitente Brotherhood, are still active in some places.

The report notes that if Congress were to authorize further study it could look to the management example found in the Blackstone River National Heritage Corridor, which honors the birth of the industrial revolution in Massachusetts and Rhode Island.

It might also look simply at the creation of a commemorative center in the area that could host a museum, research center or cultural events.

But there are also other recommendations in the survey that don't involve the Park Service.

The report encourages the use of conservation easements in the region, particularly in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, where three large ranches dominate the landscape.

The largely undeveloped terrain that make up the Trinchera and Cielo Vista ranches in Colorado and the Vermejo Park Ranch in New Mexico, could provide an important wildlife corridor, linking eastern prairies and the high mountain valleys.

Research May Revive Park Proposal
By Albuquerque Journal Editorial Board on Sun, Dec 25, 2011

A new National Park Service study may revive efforts, abandoned 30-odd years ago, to turn the Vermejo Park Ranch into a national park. In addition, the study could give new impetus to efforts to preserve historical Hispanic settlements and other sites in both northern New Mexico and southern Colorado, as well as link Vermejo Park and several other very large ranches north of there into a wildlife migration corridor.

In all this, it must certainly have helped that the current Secretary of the Interior, Ken Salazar, is native to the area in question. But the fact that the big man — and the guy who initiated the study — is a homeboy doesn’t mean that parks and historical and habitat preservation across the San Luis Valley in Colorado and along the spine of the Sangre de Cristo range in northern New Mexico aren’t good ideas in their own right.

For northern New Mexicans, the study makes amusing reading. That’s mainly because Hispanic settlements on the Colorado side of the border, including the acequia systems, homesteads and historic churches that the study identifies as important evidence in the tale of what it calls “Latino settlement,” are so much younger than the same on this side the state line, farther south.

Colorado’s oldest church and its first recorded water right, plus its land-grant ranches — all hard by that border — date back only a couple of hundred years. Here, of course, when we talk about the first European settlements, we’re talking in terms of four centuries. But, as the study rightly notes, the whole area is culturally, geographically and demographically of a piece, representing “the northernmost expansion of the Spanish Colonial and Mexican frontier,” with a “distinctive and exceptional concentration of historic resources associated with Hispano settlement.”

A national historical park might be in order, the study notes. At the very least, the National Park Service could help the two states involved develop “heritage tour routes” that would include historical information and identify landmark sites.

Noting that conservation easements already exist on some of the big ranches that were once Mexican land grants in the area, the study recommends that these be expanded so that wildlife migration could be better protected. “There are few other places in the southwestern United States,” the study says, “where such an open and unchanged landscape exists.”

The study also recommends revisiting the previous Vermejo Park ranch study that was completed in 1979 and concluded that the ranch merited inclusion in the National Park System.

All of this will require more than just Salazar, however. Only Congress can authorize the more in-depth reviews needed to look at just what, and how much, might be required to designate sites as parks or landmarks.

Salazar will be back home in the San Luis Valley with two Colorado senators and the state’s governor to talk about it after the first of the year.

Maybe New Mexico’s congressional delegation can find a way to generate enthusiasm for these ideas on this side of the state line, too.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Not so home on the range

The Old West tradition of using national forest lands for grazing isn't completely dead in the Roaring Fork Valley, but it could be on its last gasp.

For the first half of the 20th century, the Forest Service's primary duty in the Roaring Fork River basin was to manage the range for livestock grazing and, to a lesser extent, oversee timber sales.

Now, instead of supervising the grazing of large flocks of sheep on Independence Pass and huge herds of cattle in nearly all the lower-elevation drainages, the Forest Service is focused on protecting natural resources in the wake of an expanding number of recreationalists. (Oil and gas development has emerged in the past decade as a leading issue on the west side of the White River National Forest.)

The decline in the use of forest lands for grazing mirrors the slow decline in the overall health of ranching in the Roaring Fork Valley. As Aspen built its reputation as a world-class resort and land prices soared, many ranchers discovered they could get richer selling their land for real estate development than by spending years wrangling cattle.

Declining number of grazing permits
As a result, the demand for grazing allotments has plummeted in the Aspen and Sopris ranger districts, which combine to total about 720,000 acres.

“At the present time, there are approximately 202,000 acres of the Aspen and Sopris ranger districts open to domestic livestock grazing. In 1985, there were nearly 100,000 more acres open to grazing than there are now,” said Wayne Ives, the range technician on the two districts since the early 1980s.

“The number of permittees has definitely declined,” he added.

Sheep grazing used to be prevalent in the upper Roaring Fork Valley. Aspen native Stirling “Buzz” Cooper, 80, recalls Bleeker Street being used as a route to take sheep from west of town to the railroad depot, which was located near what is now Rio Grande Park.

Cooper also recalled cattle being grazed as far up as the Weller Cut on Independence Pass when he was a kid. His family lived in a cabin east of Aspen. His mother got upset when the cattle were driven down in the fall one year and trampled the family garden and yard.

Even into the mid-1980s, there were two herds of sheep grazing in the Aspen area, one in Grizzly Creek and another in East Snowmass Creek. There were four herds using the Marble area for summer pasture, Ives said.

The number of sheep grazing permits issued by the Forest Service for the Aspen and Sopris districts fell from five in 1987 to one in 2011. The last remaining herd grazes on public lands in the Marble area. A typical herd had about 1,000 head of sheep, Ives said.

The number of cattle grazing permits in the Aspen and Sopris districts fell from 28 in to 16 in 2011.

Conflicts contribute to decline
The grazing allotments range in size from 2,000 acres for 46 cow-calf units permitted to 32,000 acres with nearly 1,000 cows with calves. The fee, set by Congress, varies with beef prices. It cannot be lower than $1.35 per cow and calf per month.

Ives said grazing allotments have historically been held by the same families for generations or have carried over with different owners of a piece of property. When a ranch surrenders an allotment, it often expires these days because there are so few ranches remaining in the valley.

Ranchers face additional challenges. Some national environmental groups oppose grazing on federal lands because of the degradation to streambeds, water quality and natural pastures. Other groups complain that the fee that is charged is too low and amounts to a subsidy for ranchers. In the Roaring Fork Valley, there are conflicts between cows, climbers, cyclists and hikers.

Ives noted that cows and backpackers both are attracted to Capitol Lake, which is a popular base for climbers going up Capitol Peak, one of Colorado's mountains above 14,0000 feet. Camping spots are highly coveted around the breath-takingly beautiful lake.

“People don't expect to see cattle there,” Ives said.

Grazing patterns get messed up
Carbondale rancher Tom Turnbull has held grazing permit on federal lands for more than 50 years. Lands administered by the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management aren't really the land of many users any longer, as once billed, he said. Mountain biking has become a dominate use outside of designated Wilderness, where motorized and mechanized uses are prohibited.

“Look at the impact that it's had in areas like the Crown,” Turnbull said, referring to BLM land between the Roaring Fork River and Mount Sopris in the midvalley. The Crown has become a hot spot for mountain biking in the last decade.

“All the good main cattle trails have turned into bike trails,” Turnbull said.

His beef with biking is the effect it has on grazing patterns. The key to effective grazing is to spread the herd over the entire allotment. When cyclists regularly ride through lands used by cattle, it tends to encourage the animals to congregate.

Rory Cerise has helped move his cattle up from his family's ranch in Emma to the Crown for more than four decades. His family has held a grazing right up there since 1944. He has witnessed the effects of the recreation boom on his family's operation. Hikers and bikers on the Crown often leave gates open, forcing Cerise to track straying cows. He's also witnessed equestrians chasing cattle, considering it harmless sport.

Conflicts became so bad on Basalt Mountain, another popular mountain biking site, that the permit holder asked the Forest Service to allow greater utilization of nearby lands in Cattle Creek. The allotment on Basalt Mountain hasn't been used for a few years.

“The permittee just didn't want to fight the battles anymore,” Ives said.

Grazing still big in Rifle, Meeker
White River National Forest Supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams said the forest used to be “one giant pasture.” While livestock grazing has declined in the Aspen, Vail and Summit county areas, it still thrives in the Rifle Ranger District and Meeker's Rio Blanco Ranger Districts.

In 2010, Fitzwilliams' office issued permits for 16,270 cattle and 43,290 sheep on 92 grazing allotments throughout the forest. The White River collected $103,917 for grazing permits.

Fitzwilliams said he believes it is important for the forest to continue to provide summer grazing lands to help keep the ranching industry economically viable. The private lands of the ranches provide the public benefits of open space, wildlife habitat and checks on urban sprawl.

“I see it well into the future. Public land grazing is going to be part of the West,” Fitzwilliams said.

How much it remains a part of the Aspen and Sopris districts after the current generation of ranchers retire remains to be seen.