The Ghost Wolves of Galveston Island

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The discovery of hybrids in both Texas and Louisiana also suggests that scientists and officials may want to “refocus” their red wolf conservation efforts on those areas, said Lisette Waits, a conservation geneticist at the University of Idaho and co-author of the 2018 paper on the Louisiana hybrids.

In addition to studying the hybrids, it might make sense to reintroduce captive-bred red wolves to those regions, where animals with red wolf genes still roam the landscape. “It could completely change the direction of the red wolf recovery program,” Dr. Waits said.

Dr. Brzeski, Dr. vonHoldt and their collaborators are now studying the hybrids in both Texas and Louisiana as part of the new Gulf Coast Canine Project.

They are using GPS collars and wildlife cameras to learn more about the canids’ movements and behaviors, collecting fecal samples to analyze their diets, using genetic analysis to trace pack relatedness and collecting tissue samples from animals with the most red wolf ancestry. One goal, Dr. vonHoldt said, is to create a “biobank set of specimens that could be used to help increase the genetic health of the captive red wolf population.”

They are also hoping to learn more about how these red wolf alleles have persisted, especially in animals that live close to humans in a popular tourist destination. The island setting, which keeps the canids relatively reproductively isolated, is probably part of the explanation, but so is the “lack of persecution,” Dr. Brzeski said, noting that the animals were not commonly hunted.

Indeed, Mr. Wooten is not the only local resident who has taken an interest in the animals. The research team works closely with Josh Henderson, the animal services supervisor at the Galveston Police Department, and there is considerable community support for the canids.

Steve Parker, a lawyer who grew up in the area, remembers hearing childhood stories about his relatives trapping red wolves. The Galveston canids have helped him connect with the older generations, many of whom have passed away. “I’d like to see something and maybe be able to touch something that was special to them,” he said.