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?
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