THERE IS SOME
common ground among stakeholders. Ryckman, from the Ontario Federation of Anglers & Hunters, and Patterson, from the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry, for example, both say the final recovery strategy must have a clearer goal in terms of a target population of Algonquin wolves that would constitute successful recovery to ensure long-term sustainability of the species. Once that is clearly articulated, says Patterson, “everything else should flow from that.”
Likewise, Ryckman, Barron and members of the nearby First Nation communities cited above all agree on the need for further population studies. This work would serve to fill in knowledge gaps in under-studied areas, firm up overall wolf population data, track mortality rates and causes, and determine where Algonquin wolves are most likely to outcompete and replace the coyote population in the surrounding territory.
But while the Ontario Federation of Anglers & Hunters says this analysis should be completed before the province imposes any further harvest restrictions, Barron argues that the two should go hand in hand. Monitoring changes in population levels and distribution after those restrictions are in place, together with documenting the positive impact they have on the species, will be key to winning greater support from the hunting and trapping communities. “It’s important that we take these steps now so that down the line [the wolves] are hopefully doing well and numerous enough that, in theory, hunting and trapping could begin again.”
There are at least three aspects of the Ontario Federation of Anglers & Hunters position that fall short in the eyes of scientists working on this file, however: first, when it challenges claims that their current population is too low to ensure the species’ survival; second, when it suggests that human-induced mortality may not be the wolves’ biggest threat; and third, its doubts about Algonquin wolves’ ability to expand their footprint into adjacent areas now occupied by coyotes once hunting and trapping stops.
Linda Rutledge, author of the 2015 Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada assessment that first recognized the eastern (a.k.a. Algonquin) wolf as a distinct species worthy of threatened status, stresses that the total population matters less than the “effective population,” referring loosely to the number of breeding individuals.
“When we calculated the effective population size of Algonquin wolves … it was below 50,” says Rutledge, an assistant professor in biology and adjunct professor in environmental and life sciences at Trent University. That figure, she says, is a “red flag” that indicates “there might not be enough genetic potential within this population if they keep getting harvested for them to survive, definitely in the long term. But even in the short term, it’s right on that edge.”
Given this “precarious” situation, Rutledge’s view on extending protection into areas where these wolves are currently hunted is that we should be doing anything under our control to support their persistence. “We know that that’s effective and that’s one thing we can do,” she says, even if “we don’t entirely know the outcome of expanded protection for coyotes.”
She has no doubt they’ll find lots of suitable habitat and carve out their space among the coyotes. “Behaviourally, they’re different,” says Rutledge. “The only reason they don’t do well outside of protected areas [today] is that they aren’t protected.”
Ryckman’s argument that human-induced mortality may no longer be the algonquin wolf’ s biggest threat is based on research following the closure of the townships surrounding Algonquin Park to wolf hunting and trapping in the early 2000s — a measure that met a lot of public opposition at the time yet has since proved successful in reducing hybridization and stabilizing the population. These are areas that many wolves travel to, especially in winter, to feed on deer that migrate out of the park. Once wolves were protected there, their populations in the park rebounded and inner-pack strife, rather than hunting and trapping, became a bigger cause of mortality. But according to Rutledge, this extrapolation fails to consider that wolves reared in the park, where all the territory is occupied by other packs, have nowhere to disperse to within this closed system. “If they go outside of Algonquin, they face hunting and trapping and vehicles, but if they stay in the park, they face fights with other packs.” Open up more territory, and more wolves will disperse, she says.
Expanded protection in Quebec as well as Ontario would help the outlook, Rutledge adds. However, the likelihood of significant changes there is low. Quebec has a more liberal harvest policy, and even if the federal government does move to recognize COSEWIC’S upgrading of the eastern wolf from species of concern to threatened, that does not trigger a change in the listing under the Species at Risk Act. It could take years for any changes to take place in the actual management practices on the land.
DIFFERENT STAKEHOLDERS AGREE: ANY RECOVERY STRATEGY MUST HAVE A CLEAR GOAL FOR POPULATION SIZE THAT WOULD ENSURE LONGTERM SUSTAINABILITY