By Tara Roberts
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service removed Idaho’s gray wolves from protection under the Endangered
Species Act in 2011. State officials are now in charge of managing the wolf population, and University of
Idaho researchers are helping monitor the animals.
Department of Fish and Wildlife Sciences professor Lisette Waits and her students, in collaboration
with Idaho Fish and Game, the Nez Perce Tribe and the Montana Cooperative Wildlife Research Unit,
extract genetic information from hair and scat found at gray wolf rendezvous sites. They use this data
to document wolf presence, population size and reproduction, evaluate the genetic health of the
population, determine breeding pairs and track pack movements.
The noninvasive technique pioneered and expanded by Waits and her team is more complete and cost-
effective than traditional tracking methods, such as fitting wolves with radio collars.
“We get more information for less money,” Waits says.
The technique also decreases the crash risk associated with observing wolves from helicopters or small
planes and reduces human-wolf contact, which is dangerous for both species.
“You never have to capture or handle an animal to get information,” Waits says.
Accurate information on wolf populations is critical for managing the species. State officials use Waits’
data to set policies, including the annual wolf harvest quota, to ensure the population remains stable
and the gray wolf does not again become endangered.
Waits’ technique is gaining popularity in neighboring states that track wolves and other species.
In Washington, she and doctoral student Steph DeMay are working with state officials to monitor
endangered pygmy rabbits. The tiny creatures have nearly gone extinct, and reintroduction efforts have
been difficult. Waits can track which captive-bred rabbits survive and reproduce in the wild, improving
She’s also helped Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife track cougars and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife
Service track the recovery effort for red wolves in North Carolina. Genetic sampling is particularly
effective at detecting whether the wolves have hybridized with coyotes.
In addition, the U.S. Department of Defense has awarded Waits about $1 million to develop noninvasive
genetic monitoring methods for the kit fox, coyote and Sonoran pronghorn on military lands in Utah and
Waits’ research – and impact – extends beyond the United States.
She has tracked tigers in Nepal, brown bears in Italy, carnivores preying on caribou in Newfoundland,
parrots in Peru and Andean bears in Ecuador, where she works with Ecuadorian graduate students who
also come to the University of Idaho. This summer, as part of a National Science Foundation-funded
International Experience Program led by project coordinator David Roon, Waits will take eight U-Idaho
students, including six undergraduates, to study in Ecuador.
Waits also has spent 10 years conducting research in Costa Rica with a project led by Nilsa Bosque-
Pérez, a professor in the U-Idaho Department of Plant, Soil and Entomological Sciences. The National
Science Foundation and Costa Rica’s Tropical Agricultural Research and Higher Education Center
currently fund the project, in which teams of interdisciplinary doctoral students study social and
ecological resilience in a tropical forest that has been fragmented by agriculture. Waits is tracking bats
to see how they disperse seeds and maintain forest processes.
All this research is made possible by genetic analysis facilities at the College of Natural Resources
Laboratory for Ecological, Evolutionary and Conservation Genetics, founded by Waits and Steve
Brunsfeld in 1998 and funded by the National Science Foundation and an Idaho State Board of Education