Study shows strong rates of interbreeding among many packs

HAMILTON, Mont. (AP) -- A study says gray wolves in the Northern Rockies maintained a strong gene pool even with a smaller population, a finding that could undermine wildlife advocates' arguments that the rebounding species remains at risk.

The study co-authored by researchers from the University of California, Yellowstone National Park and other institutions concluded that interbreeding between different populations of wolves in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming was common enough to ensure genetic diversity.

The study, which is in the October issue of the journal Molecular Ecology, examined wolf data from 1995 and 2004, when at least 846 of the federally protected animals were in the region, versus more than 1,700 today.

"Lawsuits have maintained that wolf populations are not large enough to have genetic interactions. This study proves that they do," said Dave Mech, a University of Minnesota professor who has studied wolves and their prey since 1958.

Biologists have known for years that wolves were interbreeding between different parts of the Northern Rockies, but never had the science to prove it, he added.

"The whole issue of genetics and connectivity, this paper puts all that to rest," said U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist Ed Bangs, who led efforts to reintroduce wolves to the region in the 1990s.

Young adult wolves can roam hundreds of miles in search of their own territory, stirring up the gene pool as they encounter mates. Both males and females "disperse" in search of new territories and can do so at any time of the year, Bangs said.

"You'd have to have year-round unregulated killing of wolves by any means to affect dispersal," he said.

The study's findings, however, don't clear up a prevailing debate among environmentalists over how many wolves are enough to create a sustainable population in the Northern Rocky Mountains. States such as Idaho and Montana have tried to limit wolf numbers amid complaints of livestock attacks and other issues.

Mike Leahy, of Defenders of Wildlife, said the study suggests that genetic connectivity between different populations may not fare well if wolf numbers drop too low.

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