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

ALGONQUIN PROVINCIAL PARK’S “WOLF HOWLS” have long 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.

Above image: The Algonquin wolf’s total population, in Ontario and eastern Quebec, is between 250 and 1,000. Within Algonquin Park, there are about 35 discreet packs

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 southern portion of the Algonquin wolf ’s natural range). Both problems 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.

August sunset in Algonquin Park brings anticipation of a call from the local wolf pack

August sunset in Algonquin Park brings anticipation of a call from the local wolf pack

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.”

THE “COMPLEXITY” TO 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.”

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.

FOR MANY YEARS PRIOR TO its re-designation by COSEWIC in 2015, the Algonquin, or eastern, wolf, was considered a subspecies of the grey wolf, a larger animal that is much more widely dispersed across much of the country, either in its pure form or as hybrid crossed with the eastern wolf in and around the northern Great Lakes. While the idea that it might be a separate species was raised some time ago, that notion was hotly disputed by others — sparking a lengthy debate in the scientific community and causing more widespread questioning of the wolf ’s conservation value.

It was Linda Rutledge who did much of the DNA work in the past decade that confirmed the Algonquin wolf ’s unique genetic makeup, tracing it back to an ancestor that evolved independently of grey wolves and alongside coyotes. And while that research has spawned a cascade of changes in our under- standing and approach to the animal, its most important contribution might be that it has turned the Algonquin wolf ’s origin story from a source of confusion and dismissal into the primary argument for its ongoing preservation.

“The argument about genetic origin is an academic discussion,” says Rutledge. “What’s important is moving forward with what we can agree on. And what we can agree on is they’re worthy of conservation.”

This article was originally published in the November-December 2018 issue of Canadian Wildlife magazine. Photos: (wolf) Erika Squires, Nature Canada; (sunset) my own.