Hybridizing Law: A Policy for Hybridization Under the Endangered Species Act

Date01 July 2017
7-2017 NEWS & ANALYSIS 47 ELR 10615
Hybridizing Law:
A Policy for
Under the
Species Act
by John A. Erwin
John (Alex) Erwin is completing both a J.D. at the James E.
Rogers College of Law and a Ph.D. from the Genetics Graduate
Interdisciplinary Department at the University of Arizona.
For centuries, hybridization was a poorly understood
process thought to be a threat to endangered species.
With the advent of genomic technologies, those views
are starting to change; hybridization is now recog-
nized as vital for the formation and continued persis-
tence of many species. However, our current system of
protection under the Endangered Species Act (ESA)
fails to take many of the modern nuances of evolu-
tionary biology into consideration. Despite calls for
an explicit “hybrid policy” since the early 1990s, the
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and National Marine
Fisheries Service have instead chosen to apply a case-
by-case approach with no guidance or overarching
policy. With the new technologies, many species we
are currently protecting could technically be unsuit-
able for protection based on a rigid interpretation of
the ESA. A dened hybrid policy must be adopted,
taking into consideration the twin aims of protecting
genetic lineages and protecting ecosystems.
“This animal is not an endangered species. is
animal is a hybrid and should be delisted
immediately.1 “ey absolutely invented a
species and called it endangered.”2ese were just a couple
of t he plethora of rebukes directed at the U.S. Fish a nd
Wildlife Service (F WS) condemning the continued pro-
tection of the red wolf (Canis lupus) in light of recent nd-
ings. For decades, the taxonomic status of red wolves has
been up in the air: is it a distinct species, a subspecies of
gray wolves or coyotes, a recent hybrid population bet ween
gray wolves or coyotes, or some mix of all of these dif-
ferent hypotheses?3 A 2016 genomic st udy seems to have
answered this quest ion once a nd for all: the red wolf is a
population of hybrids formed, primarily since the 1800s,
from gray wolves and coyotes.4
e red wolf has been one of the agship species for
protection under the Enda ngered Species Act (ESA), yet,
as the aforementioned quotes hint, under the current
implementation of the ESA, hybrids are not aorded pro-
tection. Is this just “a case of well-intentioned biologists
going back se veral dec ades, tr ying to bring back a spec ies
they believed existed,”5 sugge sting the red wolf does not
deserve continued prote cted status? Or, in spite of their
hybrid status, do es there exist signica nt biological jus-
tication to continue protecting red wolves, and ot her
hybrids? ese are t he questions our polic ymakers and
wildli fe managers a re forced to answer, despite a decided
lack of leg al gu idance.
When the Human Genome Project was completed in
2003, few could imagine the widespread proliferation of
these sequencing technologies just a decade later.6 at
rst genome cost $2.7 billion dolla rs a nd nearly 15 years
to complete; today, a genome can be sequenced for under
$2,000 in days to weeks.7 ese drastic reductions in cost
have driven all the major elds in biolog y to new heights,
perhaps none more so tha n wildlife conservation.8 Conser-
vation genetics t raditionally utilized just a few genes, yet,
1. Quote from Gary Mowad, a former Deputy Chief of Law Enforcement for
the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), found in William LaJeunesse,
    , F
N, Sept. 22, 2016, http://www.foxnews.com/us/2016/09/22/feds-mull-
2. Quote from Scott Grin from the group Citizens Science, found in
LaJeunesse, supra note 1.
3. Steven M. Chambers et al., 
Wolves From Morphological and Genetic Analyses, 77 N. A. F 1 (2012).
4. Bridgett M. vonHoldt et al., Whole-Genome Sequence Analysis Shows at
, 2 S. A e1501714 (2016).
5. Quote from Gary Mowad, found in LaJeunesse, supra note 1.
6. National Human Genome Research Institute,     
Human Genome, https://www.genome.gov/sequencingcosts/ (last updated
July 6, 2016).
7. Id.
8. Fred Allendorf et al.,  , 11
N R. G 697 (2010).
Copyright © 2017 Environmental Law Institute®, Washington, DC. Reprinted with permission from ELR®, http://www.eli.org, 1-800-433-5120.

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