Canine distemper virus (CDV) is an acute, highly immunizing pathogen that should require high densities and large populations of hosts for long-term persistence, yet CDV persists among terrestrial carnivores with small, patchily distributed groups. We used CDV in the Greater Yellowstone ecosystem's (GYE) wolves (Canis lupus) and coyotes (Canis latrans) as a case study for exploring how metapopulation structure, host demographics, and multi-host transmission affect the critical community size and spatial scale required for CDV persistence. We illustrate how host spatial connectivity and demographic turnover interact to affect both local epidemic dynamics, such as the length and variation in inter-epidemic periods, and pathogen persistence using stochastic, spatially explicit susceptible-exposed-infectious-recovered simulation models. Given the apparent absence of other known persistence mechanisms (e.g., a carrier or environmental state, densely populated host, chronic infection, or a vector), we suggest that CDV requires either large spatial scales or multi-host transmission for persistence. Current GYE wolf populations are probably too small to support endemic CDV. Coyotes are a plausible reservoir host, but CDV would still require 50000-100000 individuals for moderate persistence (> 50% over 10 years), which would equate to an area of 1-3 times the size of the GYE (60000-200000 km2). Coyotes, and carnivores in general, are not uniformly distributed; therefore, this is probably a gross underestimate of the spatial scale of CDV persistence. However, the presence of a second competent host species can greatly increase the probability of long-term CDV persistence at much smaller spatial scales. Although no management of CDV is currently recommended for the GYE, wolf managers in the region should expect periodic but unpredictable CDV-related population declines as often as every 2-5 years. Awareness and monitoring of such outbreaks will allow corresponding adjustments in management activities such as regulated public harvest, creating a smooth transition to state wolf management and conservation after > 30 years of being protected by the Endangered Species Act.