August 14, 2014
Q: I recently read an article about the native Idaho wolf. I had previously never heard of this wolf species, which is said to be 40 to 60 pounds smaller than the wolf we reintroduced into Idaho. Is there such a wolf, and is it endangered?
IRENE ANDERSON, Meridian
A: Get comfy, Irene, this may take a while.
The short version is there's no definitive answer to what Idaho's "native" wolf is for many reasons, but I will make an educated guess that the wolves we have now are similar to what we used to have.
Some people claim Idaho's "native" wolf was the "plains" wolf, which is a slightly smaller subspecies of the gray wolf, and those transplanted from Canada were larger "timber" wolves.
According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, gray wolves once ranged from coast-to-coast and from Alaska to Mexico, and they were one of the most wide-ranging animals on the continent.
There were, and are, numerous subspecies, of which the "plains" wolf is one. Despite its name, it's also found in the Great Lakes.
If you could track down the DNA of an Idaho wolf from hundreds of years ago, it would likely show you it's a gray wolf, but not a particular subspecies.
If you look at the evidence, it points to Idaho's previous wolves being similar to those in Canada based on Idaho's geography, terrain and climate.
The ancestors of Idaho's current gray wolf population came from south central Alberta and British Columbia in 1995-96.
The fact that they're from Canada does not make them a subspecies, as some people claim.
The weight range of the transplanted wolves was 72 to 126 pounds, according to Idaho Fish and Game records.
F&G's recent harvest statistics show Idaho wolves killed by hunters average about 90 pounds for females and about 100 pounds for males.
That may skew a little small because young wolves are more likely to get shot than older wolves. The largest wolf killed in Idaho since reintroduction was about 135 pounds.
As to whether the wolves imported from Canada are a different subspecies, evidence based on geography and other species doesn't support it.
From North Idaho, there's only a few hundred miles from where the transplanted wolves originated, and the farthest distance from the current population's original home would probably be fewer than 1,000 miles.
According to Mark Drew, veterinarian at Fish and Game's Wildlife Health Laboratory, a thousand miles is not enough distance to trigger what's known as Bergmann's rule. That's a widely accepted zoological principle that individual animals of a certain species tend to be larger at higher latitudes and colder climates than those closer to the equator and in warmer climates.
White-tailed deer are a classic example. Whitetails in southern states are diminutive compared to whitetails in northern states and Canadian provinces.
Also, if you subtract the weight you mentioned (40 to 60 pounds lighter) from the average size of today's wolves, you'd have a wolf about the size of a coyote, which isn't likely.
But you could make an argument that wolves inhabiting Idaho a century or more ago were different than what we have now simply because Idaho was different.
Wolves, like all animals, are a product of their environment and highly adaptable. Their size relates to their habitat and prey.
Jon Rachael, F&G's state big game manager, said current wolf weights vary throughout the state. Packs adjacent to each other may have larger or smaller individuals, simply because one pack is healthier than the other.
But to more directly answer your question about what was Idaho's "native" wolf, Rachael forwarded me a copy of "An account of the Taxonomy of North American Wolves from a Morphological and Genetic Analysis."
It's a scientific paper that discusses many subspecies of wolves across North America, and here's your scientific smoking gun: "Recognition of the northern timber wolf Canis lupus occidentalis and the plains wolf Canis lupus nubilus as subspecies is supported by morphological data and extensive studies of microsatellite DNA variation where both subspecies are in contact in Canada. "There is scientific support for the taxa recognized here, but delineation of exact geographic boundaries presents challenges. Rather than sharp boundaries between taxa, boundaries should generally be thought of as intergrade zones of variable width."
If you understood all of that, you're probably smarter than I.
But here's my take: Because Idaho has both mountains and desert, it likely falls into the category of an "intergrade zone." It's possible a desert subspecies existed that was smaller than their northern cousins. But considering most of the state is mountainous and cold, most of Idaho's previous "native" wolves were probably similar to what we have now.