A Howl for Help

For years the Al­go­nquin or eastern wolf was con­sid­ered a sub­species of the grey wolf and its im­por­tance ques­tioned. Re­search over the past decade has changed that. Now... can they be saved?

Canadian Wildlife - - CONTENTS - By Brian Banks

For years, the Al­go­nquin or eastern wolf was con­sid­ered a sub­species of the grey wolf and its im­por­tance ques­tioned. Re­search over the past decade has changed that. Now... can it be saved?

FOR YEARS, Al­go­nquin Pro­vin­cial Park’s “wolf howls” have been among its most an­tic­i­pated sum­mer­time events, draw­ing as many as 2,000 mem­bers of the pub­lic. Held weekly in Au­gust — weather and wolves per­mit­ting — the “shows” start with a twi­light meet­ing at an out­door the­atre along the high­way cor­ri­dor in the south­west cor­ner of the enor­mous 7,650-square-kilo­me­tre park (one and a half times the size of Prince Edward Is­land), 300 kilo­me­tres north of Toronto. From there, keen canid-seek­ers drive out in a gi­ant con­voy to a des­ig­nated road­side site, then wait very qui­etly on the shoul­der un­der the stars. Sus­pense builds un­til a park nat­u­ral­ist lets out a long, low howl. Up and down the row, adults and chil­dren strain their ears hop­ing to hear res­i­dent wolves — from one of the sev­eral park packs whose ter­ri­to­ries over­lap the high­way — yelp, bark and bay mourn­fully in re­turn.

With luck, the wolves re­spond. And when they do, the con­nec­tion is elec­tric. Ac­cord­ing to an ac­count of one suc­cess­ful 2013 howl, the crowd “spon­ta­neously erupted in ap­plause af­ter it was over.”

Lately, how­ever, that hasn’t been hap­pen­ing. In fact, it’s been five years since the park’s last suc­cess­ful wolf howl. That drop-off has caused some to won­der about the state of the wolf pop­u­la­tion in the park, but Brent Pat­ter­son, a re­search sci­en­tist with the On­tario Min­istry of Nat­u­ral Re­sources and Forestry’s wildlife re­search and mon­i­tor­ing sec­tion, says the wolves are still out there. “As far as we can tell, there are no fewer packs along the High­way 60 cor­ri­dor; it’s just that the in­di­vid­ual spa­tial dis­tri­bu­tion of those packs has changed,” he says.

Even so, the sta­tus of Al­go­nquin’s wolves is an in­creas­ing source of con­cern. In 2015, the Com­mit­tee on the Sta­tus of En­dan­gered Wildlife in Canada for­mally rec­og­nized them and a small num­ber of other wolves in iso­lated nearby lo­ca­tions in south­west­ern Que­bec and south­cen­tral On­tario as a dis­tinct species (Ca­nis sp. cf. ly­caon). At the same time, it des­ig­nated their sta­tus as “threat­ened.” A few months later, COSEWIC’S pro­vin­cial coun­ter­part in On­tario, COSSARO, fol­lowed suit and the province listed the an­i­mal — known provin­cially as the Al­go­nquin wolf and fed­er­ally as the eastern wolf — as a “threat­ened” species un­der On­tario’s En­dan­gered Species Act.

Ac­cord­ing to th­ese as­sess­ments, the Al­go­nquin wolf ’s to­tal pop­u­la­tion is no more than 250 to 1,000 an­i­mals — roughly two-thirds in On­tario and one-third in Que­bec — with the true to­tal more likely on the low end. As a re­sult, the iconic species’ long-term sur­vival is in jeop­ardy if steps aren’t taken to boost its over­all count.

Pat­ter­son has been study­ing wolves in and around Al­go­nquin Park since 2002. His fo­cus to­day is re­search to sup­port re­cov­ery plan­ning for the species. (Un­der the En­dan­gered Species Act, as soon as a species is listed as “threat­ened,” the province has two years to pre­pare a re­cov­ery strat­egy, usu­ally writ­ten by an out­side ex­pert or con­sul­tant.) A key part of that in­volves cap­tur­ing and fit­ting wolves with ra­dio col­lars that trans­mit their pre­cise lo­ca­tions via GPS. Right now, his team is track­ing about 40 wolves from among the 35 or so packs in the park and sev­eral oth­ers in

two smaller pro­tected ar­eas to the south and west. The goal is to de­ter­mine where wolves spend their time through­out the year and also to map mor­tal­ity lev­els in dif­fer­ent ar­eas. It’s also how Pat­ter­son knows there are still wolves around the high­way cor­ri­dor in the park.

“This time of year, in Au­gust, [wolf packs] are on what we call ren­dezvous sites,” he ex­plains. While there are sev­eral in the High­way 60 area, GPS data shows each is about two kilo­me­tres from the road. “That’s just a lit­tle too far [for a suc­cess­ful howl]. Prob­a­bly the wolves could hear you two kilo­me­tres away on a clear night if you howl, but you wouldn’t hear them howl back.”

The two pri­mary threats to the Al­go­nquin wolf are hu­man-in­duced mor­tal­ity, mainly due to hunt­ing and trap­ping, and hy­bridiza­tion with eastern coy­otes (the dom­i­nant canid out­side pro­tected ar­eas across the south­ern­por­tionoftheal­go­nquin­wolf’snat­u­ral­range).both­prob­lems con­front the wolves pri­mar­ily when they leave the 10 or 11 parks and re­serves and 40 town­ships im­me­di­ately sur­round­ing Al­go­nquin Park where hunt­ing and trap­ping is for­bid­den. Such move­ment is com­mon when wolves fol­low deer, their main prey, to their win­ter­ing grounds and when young wolves first leave their packs to find mates and their own ter­ri­tory.

On pa­per, the na­ture of th­ese threats makes the task of re­cov­er­ing the Al­go­nquin wolf pop­u­la­tion rel­a­tively easy: sim­ply ex­tend pro­tec­tion from hunt­ing and trap­ping over a larger por­tion of their nat­u­ral range. Not only would you ex­pect the

pop­u­la­tion to grow as a re­sult, but re­search shows that hy­bridiza­tion is re­duced when wolves are pro­tected, be­cause they are more able to find mates of their own kind.

But the re­al­ity on the ground, to date, has been any­thing but sim­ple. Or­di­nar­ily, for ex­am­ple, such pro­tec­tion would have been extended to the Al­go­nquin wolf in On­tario as soon as its sta­tus was up­graded to threat­ened un­der the En­dan­gered Species Act. In­stead, on the open­ing day of hunt­ing sea­son in 2016, just weeks af­ter that change in sta­tus, the govern­ment an­nounced an un­prece­dented ex­emp­tion to al­low its con­tin­ued har­vest in all but a few small ar­eas not pre­vi­ously pro­tected. “They’re the only threat­ened species [in On­tario] that you can still hunt and trap,” says Han­nah Bar­ron, di­rec­tor of the Wolves On­tario cam­paign at Earth­roots, a Toronto-based con­ser­va­tion or­ga­ni­za­tion.

The re­cov­ery strat­egy process has also been dis­rupted. The orig­i­nal two-year dead­line for its com­ple­tion (un­der the En­dan­gered Species Act) was June 15 of this year. At that point, had things gone ac­cord­ing to plan, the province would have had an­other nine months to is­sue a re­sponse state­ment out­lin­ing the spe­cific ac­tions it in­tends to take to meet the re­cov­ery strat­egy’s goals. Mea­sures stem­ming from that would have be­gun this com­ing spring. How­ever, back in March, shortly af­ter it posted a draft ver­sion of the re­cov­ery strat­egy for comment, the Min­istry of Nat­u­ral Re­sources and Forestry hit pause on that doc­u­ment and an­nounced it re­quired an 18-month de­lay to com­plete the process “due to the com­plex­ity of the is­sue.”

WOLVES ARE SLIGHTLY LARGER THAN COY­OTES, AND ARE DISTIN­GUISHED BY THEIR REDDISHBROWN OR TAWNY COATS. BUT THE RE­AL­ITY IS, THEY ARE VERY DIF­FI­CULT TO TELL APART

which the min­istry refers rests on sev­eral fac­tors. The big­gest is the re­al­ity that along with the por­tion of the pop­u­la­tion who at­tend wolf howls or, in Pat­ter­son’s words, sim­ply “feel bet­ter know­ing that there’s wolves out there, roam­ing free and liv­ing as wolves should live,” there are dif­fer­ent seg­ments of the pop­u­la­tion who feel other­wise. The bulk of th­ese are ei­ther mem­bers of the hunt­ing and trap­ping com­mu­ni­ties or farm­ers in po­ten­tial wolf ter­ri­tory who worry that pro­tec­tion for wolves will trans­late into in­creased depre­da­tion of live­stock and fi­nan­cial harm.

A sec­ond re­lated is­sue is that ex­pand­ing pro­tec­tion for the Al­go­nquin wolf from hunt­ing and trap­ping also means do­ing the same for eastern coy­otes, a re­al­ity that, ac­cord­ing to Pat­ter­son, “ticks a lot of peo­ple off.” But there’s no op­tion. While Al­go­nquin wolves are slightly larger than coy­otes on aver­age and noted for their red­dish-brown or tawny coats, Pat­ter­son says there is so much “am­bi­gu­ity” be­tween the two that no hunter can tell them apart. Traps, like­wise, cap­ture in­dis­crim­i­nately.

In a writ­ten re­sponse to the pro­vin­cial draft re­cov­ery strat­egy pub­lished ear­lier this year, Mark Ryckman, man­ager of pol­icy with the On­tario Fed­er­a­tion of An­glers & Hunters, listed a se­ries of spe­cific ob­jec­tions to rec­om­men­da­tions in the doc­u­ment and the no­tion of ex­pand­ing the ar­eas off-lim­its to hunt­ing and trap­ping. “There are pro­cesses and mech­a­nisms for wolf con­ser­va­tion al­ready in place that reg­u­late the sustainable har­vest of wolves and coy­otes in On­tario,” Ryckman wrote. “A larger re­cov­ery zone will not trans­late into larger re­cov­ery suc­cess. It will, how­ever, have a sig­nif­i­cant im­pact on hunters, trap­pers, farm­ers, and wildlife man­age­ment.”

Han­nah Bar­ron at­tended a pair of work­shops hosted by Bea­con En­vi­ron­men­tal, the con­sul­tants hired to write the re­cov­ery strat­egy, in 2017. Groups at­tend­ing in­cluded hunters, trap­pers, farm­ers, en­vi­ron­men­tal groups, First Na­tions, and mem­bers from the Min­istry of Nat­u­ral Re­sources and Forestry. She was there pri­mar­ily in her ca­pac­ity as leader of the On­tario Wolf Sur­vey, an Earth­roots’ ci­ti­zen sci­ence pro­gram work­ing with mem­bers of the pub­lic and lo­cal First Na­tions to gather Al­go­nquin wolf pop­u­la­tion data in ar­eas within the species range where pro­vin­cial bi­ol­o­gists are do­ing lit­tle or no re­search.

Bar­ron de­scribes the ses­sions as “a big hash out” where the con­sul­tant and govern­ment reps out­lined their over­all ideas, and then ev­ery­one shared their views. Even at that point, the divi­sions among the stake­hold­ers were clear. “Wolves are very di­vi­sive an­i­mals,” she says. While Bar­ron found the pro­pos­als tabled at that time lack­ing in de­tail, mak­ing it “hard to agree or dis­agree” with what they con­tained, “the hunters, trap­pers and most of the farm­ers were very con­cerned that ev­ery­thing was go­ing to be shut down in terms of hunt­ing and trap­ping for­ever.” In a state­ment ap­pended to the short-lived first draft of the pro­vin­cial re­cov­ery strat­egy, three area First Na­tions — Mag­netawan First Na­tion, Shawanaga First Na­tion and Nipiss­ing First Na­tion — ex­pressed a shared view that pro­tec­tion “be fo­cused and di­rected on sav­ing the species, and not as­so­ci­ated with fi­nan­cial out­comes.”

Al­go­nquin wolf seen in Al­go­nquin Park HOME BASE

CEN­TRAL PARK Al­go­nquin oc­cu­pies more than 7,000 square km in cen­tral On­tario. It marked its 125th an­niver­sary this year

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