ALMAGUIN – Scientists say it is unlikely that a wolf harvesting ban will be lifted.
The wolves found in Algonquin Park remain the closest living relative to the original eastern wolf.
Brent Patterson, a research scientist with the Ministry of Natural Resources at Trent University in Peterborough, predicts that if the harvest ban on wolves was lifted today, some if not most of the packs on the periphery of the harvest ban area would be killed off and replaced by coyotes.
“It’s not that coyotes would push them out its just that when the wolves are removed from that area coyotes would recolonize,” he said.
Patterson says there are clear biological reasons and benefits for having the harvest ban in place with respect to the conservation of eastern wolves and if that moratorium were lifted it is likely it would have a negative impact on that population.
University of Trent geneticist Bradley White agrees that the moratorium should be left in place, at least until more research is conducted.
According to Patterson, the provincial government put a 30-month experimental closure on hunting and trapping of wolves in the 39 townships surrounding Algonquin Park.
“When it was announced in late 2001 the government announced they would conduct the research necessary to determine whether the ban was necessary and what the demographic impact of the ban on the population of wolves in and around the park,” he said.
Patterson says they moved full steam ahead with their research.
“With preliminary data coming in and feedback from various stakeholder organizations coming in as well as the public they decided to extend the harvest band indefinitely,” he said.
Although the moratorium was put in place to protect the eastern wolf the ban is in place to both wolves and coyotes because of hybridization.
“Algonquin is the core of the population of the eastern wolf. New findings since 2001 have found that there are fewer eastern wolves outside of Algonquin than we previously thought,” he said. “So the majority of eastern wolves found in Ontario and in Canada are in either Algonquin or Algonquin plus the harvest ban area outside the park.”
The park is about 7,600 square-kms. The total protected area is about 15,600 square-kms.
There are about 70 packs of eastern wolves in the total protected area. “That would be most of the Ontario and national population,” he said.
The number in the park has remained fairly stable, although it is unknown whether packs found in the harvest ban area outside the park existed prior to the ban.
A few packs of eastern wolves can be found in Kawartha Highlands area as well as toward Killarney.
“But immediately outside the harvest ban area in most directions the animals are either coyotes or coyote hybrids with northeastern (grey) wolves,” he said. “The clear message is that if you look at the closest living descendant or remnant of what an eastern wolf was, it is typified by the animals that live in Algonquin.”
In recent years the researchers have been searching for clusters of eastern wolves outside of the park.
“We haven’t turned over every stone but we have looked in a lot of areas and aren’t finding them,” he said.
Patterson says as they left the harvest ban area moving their research into Parry Sound and Huntsville they were surprised by the change in the genetic composition.
“As soon as you got into Huntsville or toward Parry Sound almost all of the free-ranging canids were eastern coyotes. I think we only had one pack of eastern wolves in that area,” he said.
The eastern wolf travels by roads and trails throughout the park and keep that pattern, which is not a good survival strategy where hunting and trapping takes place.
“Eastern wolves survive much more poorly outside the park than do coyotes or wolves from the northeast,” he said. “Because most originate from a protected park they are not that well adapted to life outside a protected area.”
“It certainly contains genetic material of the coyote and the grey wolf,” said University of Trent geneticist Bradley White.
“We have very few unhybridized wolves in the province,” said Patterson. “What most people call a grey wolf or timber wolf are actually hybrids as well. They are hybrids between grey wolves and eastern wolves.”
White says if there is a selection for a particular progeny hybridization will be successful.
“Because the landscape was so dramatically changed by humans in terms of deforestation, farming, and killing the top end predator in an area we opened the way for this whole series of events to occur,” he said.
Western coyotes, lived predominantly in the southwest, but as the wolves were killed of in the United States it opened up the opportunity for the western coyote to expand. As it moved into Ontario, creating a hybrid.
“The eastern wolf in Ontario was one of the few places where there was an eastern wolf and so it was born in Ontario,” he said. “The hybrid (known as the coywolf) then moved east and that hybrid is no longer hybridizing with anything now.”
Coywolves, which are adaptable to human terrain, have trouble surviving in the bush but the eastern wolf finds life outside the park much more challenging.
“One of the interesting things, if you’re a biologist anyways, is to celebrate evolution in action,” said White.
White says in the course of about 90 years, begin around 1920 the coywolf spread across South Western Ontario, through to Prince Edward Island to Newfoundland and down to Cape Cod.
“It’s been very successful in that area and is now continuing to evolve to this habitat,” he said.
Some of the habitat where the coywolf now resides was once lands habited by the eastern wolf before it was eraticated, such as the Adirondacks.
“The coywolf has certainly occupied much of the area that was occupied by the eastern wolf before humans killed off all the eastern wolves,” he said. “I often refer to the eastern wolf in the park as the loyalist wolf. If you can imagine they were persecuted much more in the states than in Canada because the human population would have increased much more in the states.”
It was Algonquin Park where the eastern wolf found their safe haven but the park still finds challenges living on the Almaguin side of the park. The wolves primary diet was once deer, however the deer numbers within the park have dwindled and the wolf survives within the park by scavenging moose or calves but about a third of their diet is beaver and about a third of their diet is whatever deer they can find.
“The MNR does analysis of the scat and they do find deer fur so they are finding it,” he said. “That is sort of their preferred diet but certainly the density of deer is low on that side.”