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BY Spencer Kalan
In early June, NatureServe and the Nature Conservancy of Canada released a report identifying 308 species that are endemic to Canada, the first of its kind. Included in the list of 21 mammals is the eastern wolf (Canis lycaon), and as this wolf is only found within Ontario and Quebec, Canadians have a disproportionate responsibility for their conservation and we are failing them.
Due to the continued human persecution of eastern wolves through decades of hunting and trapping, wolf and coyote species began to interbreed. Repeated admixture with both gray wolves and eastern coyotes (Canis latrans) has resulted in an alphabet soup of genetic hybridization, meaning that the wolves inhabiting Algonquin Park today represent a unique blend of historical and current canid ancestry.
Rather than lament the loss of a ‘pure’ eastern wolf, it is more important to realize that the admixed ancestry of the current wolves in Algonquin could actually be their greatest hope against an uncertain future existence. Put simply, the DNA from gray wolves and eastern coyotes could result in beneficial genetic changes for the Algonquin wolf population that can facilitate their adaptation and persistence in a rapidly changing world.
Both COSEWIC (Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada) and COSSARO (Committee on the Status of Species at Risk in Ontario) have policies for genetic admixture and have recognized the Algonquin wolf as a listable entry. As of 2015, it was listed as threatened due to having between 250 and 1000 mature individuals remaining in the wild, and gained immediate protection from being harmed under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) in Ontario.
This isn’t where the story ends unfortunately and the realty is much more pessimistic. A few months later in July of 2016, the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry decided to exempt the Algonquin wolf from the protection of the ESA; with the exception of Algonquin Provincial Park, Killarney Provincial Park, Queen Elizabeth II Wildlands Provincial Park, and Kawartha Provincial Park (and a few surrounding townships), hunting and trapping is allowed to continue. Considering that the main threat for wolf mortality outside of these protected areas is human-induced hunting and trapping, population expansion is unlikely. The populations of wolves in these protected areas will therefore become increasingly isolated from each other and will likely result in more interbreeding with coyotes, and possibly inbreeding between the wolves themselves, reducing their genetic ability to adapt to future challenges.
The grim reality of allowing a threatened species to be hunted is compounded by two additional factors: there are likely less wolves than we think, and we don’t know how many are hunted each year. According to a study published in Diversity and Distribution, the effective population size of Algonquin wolves (a measure of the risk of genetic decline) is too low to avoid inbreeding (short-term), and too low to suggest long-term persistence. Essentially, there aren’t enough mature wolves to optimistically say that they will still exist in the near future. If that isn’t concerning enough, Algonquin wolves look nearly identical to eastern coyotes and without a genetic test, there is no reliable way to tell them apart. Since eastern coyotes are not protected in these four areas, and the province does not require DNA samples from hunted and trapped animals, it is likely that more Algonquin wolves are being killed than we realize.
Algonquin wolves are a species endemic to Canada, and it falls on Canadians to protect them and advocate for their conservation, and we are failing them. As it stands, they are threatened, reduced to four increasingly isolated protected habitats, and are hunted and trapped more than we realize. Should current practices continue, Algonquin wolves will become more sparse and it will be Canadians that must harbour the blame for choosing not to help save a native species.