Movement and mixing in a managed metapopulation of the critically endangered red wolf


Movement connects otherwise isolated populations, influencing demographic persistence and promoting gene flow. We evaluated the effect of movement on the genetic and demographic viability of the red wolf (Canis rufus) and tested the application of metapopulation theory to management of this endangered predator. The establishment of a captive subpopulation in the 1970s allowed persistence of the species and facilitated a reintroduction program that supported 2 wild subpopulations, one of which persists today. We assessed the effect of historical and potential future movement between the wild and captive subpopulations on the genetic and demographic viability of the metapopulation. We analyzed approximately 30 years of individual-level data to quantify the effects of historical movement among subpopulations and constructed an individual-based metapopulation model to predict the effects of future potential movement (i.e., releases of captive wolves) on the species’ persistence and genetic diversity. Counter to theory, increased movement has had positive demographic effects, with higher per capita movement rates leading to increased metapopulation growth and decreased subpopulation synchrony. These counter-theoretical results are likely due to differences in reproduction and survival rates among subpopulations and the small size of the metapopulation. Furthermore, higher rates of movement did not increase retention of genetic diversity, likely because of the active pedigree-based breeding management of the species already maximizing gene retention. Our model indicates that future releases of captive wolves are necessary, but not sufficient, for the survival of the species, and must be combined with changes to demographic rates in both the captive and northeastern North Carolina subpopulations. Our results highlight the need for models and field data that more adequately describe the viability of small metapopulations.