In 2012, a giant tortoise died on a Pacific island at the age of 100, and a wolf was shot outside the boundaries of Yellowstone National Park. Such incidents typically go unnoticed, but the deaths of these animals—favorites of tourists from all over the world—personalized species loss for many.
In June, Lonesome George, a Galapagos Island tortoise who was the last of the subspecies Chelonoidis nigra abingdoni, died at the relatively young age of 100—about half the age that giant tortoises can reach. Native to Pinta Island, Lonesome George was discovered there in 1972, and taken to the Charles Darwin Research Station (CDRS) on Santa Cruz Island for protection and breeding. At CDRS, scientists tried pairing him with females of closely related subspecies, but eggs produced from these matings were infertile.
Lonesome George was famous to the thousands of tourists who visited his enclosure each year. Icons of the Galapagos Islands, giant tortoises began to decline precipitously when 19th Century sailors slaughtered many for meat. Remaining wild tortoises face threats from non-native species introduced to the islands. On Pinta Island, introduced goats devoured vegetation, stripping plants bare and depriving tortoises of food.
Located in the Pacific Ocean west of Ecuador, almost every Galapagos Island once was home to a different subspecies of tortoise. The uniqueness of tortoises, finches, and other species among the different Galapagos Islands influenced Charles Darwin’s thinking about the process of evolution.
Closer to home, in November a popular wolf from Yellowstone National Park was shot by Wyoming hunters when she wandered outside Park boundaries. Known to researchers as 832F, and to tourists as ’06, she was the alpha, or lead, female in a pack in the Lamar Valley, a well-known wildlife-watching spot in Yellowstone.
832F was one of 10 Yellowstone wolves shot by hunters this past fall. All had accidentally strayed outside the Park, and were killed in annual wolf-hunting seasons in Wyoming and other states. At least seven of the 10 targeted wolves wore radio collars as part of long-term scientific research to track them and learn more about their habits. Their deaths represent a major loss to the research community.
While Gray Wolves, Canis lupus, are not extinct in Yellowstone, they face persecution comparable to that which drove Lonesome George’s kind to extinction. Wolves intentionally were killed off in Yellowstone, and much of the western United States, by the 1930s. Reintroduced to Yellowstone in 1995, wolves have done well there and established several packs.
Wolf reintroduction has been shown to be beneficial to other species in the greater Yellowstone ecosystem as well. But Gray Wolves were ‘downlisted’ by the U.S. government in 2003 from endangered to threatened status. In a controversial move, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service transferred management of wolves to individual states surrounding Yellowstone, including Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho. These states allow wolves that accidentally stray outside of Yellowstone’s boundaries to be hunted, even when the wolves aren’t threatening livestock.
To conserve species effectively, protective steps need to be taken while species still have enough individuals to maintain genetic diversity and keep ecological relationships intact. While Lonesome George’s subspecies is extinct and gone forever, it’s not too late to take stronger steps to protect wolves, as well as the many other species that inch closer to extinction each year.