Mar 14, 2018

Hannah Barron is a researcher with EarthRoots, which is a “grassroots conservation organization dedicated to the protection of Ontario's wilderness, wildlife and watersheds, through research, education and action.” according to the description on its web site

She runs an Earthroots project called Wolves Ontario, which is dedicated to raising public awareness of the status of the current status of the wolf population in Ontario, advocating for better policies that govern wolves, and achieving meaningful protection for wolves and wolf habitat.

The focus of her efforts recently has been in identifying the range and population density of the Eastern Wolf, which has recently been re-named the Algonquin Wolf. According to Barron, and her view is supported by researchers affiliated with Trent University, there are about 500 Algonquin Wolves, most of them living within or near Frontenac Park, where they are protected from hunting and trapping.

Barron made a presentation recently to the Annual General Meeting of the Friends of Frontenac Park. In it, she talked about three species, the gray wolf, the Eastern/Algonquin Wolf (which is genetically identical to the Red Wolf – which is the subject of a recovery effort in North Carolina) and the Eastern Coyote. In Ontario, Gray Wolves, whose territory is generally north and west of Algonquin Park, are doing well. Coyotes, located south of the park and throughout eastern and southern Ontario, are also plentiful, but the Eastern Wolf is in peril and has been for some time.

As Barron explained in a subsequent phone interview with the News, “it could be that the numbers of Eastern Wolves has been about 500 for quite some time, decades even.”

But whether the Eastern Wolf population is steady or on the decline, that number makes them vulnerable. An outbreak of mange, a decline in the beaver, deer or moose populations or a difficult weather season or two could reduce the population to the point of no return.

And the Eastern Wolf is also important for the genetic health of the other wild canids in Ontario and Eastern North America.

“Grey wolves will mate with Eastern Wolves, and Eastern Wolves will mate with Coyotes, but Grey Wolves will not mate with Coyotes,” Barron said, pointing out as well that Coyotes and dogs will mate as well.

Hybridization of wolves, Coyotes, and dogs has been going on for a long time, and this makes the science complicated. It is not possible to distinguish between a Coyote and an Eastern Wolf by looking at them, listening to them yip or howl, or by their paw print. While wolves are much larger than Coyote, hybridization has blurred those lines over the years. It requires a DNA sample to determine the difference, according to Barron.

She spends much of her time these days in the field, mostly to the east and south of Algonquin Park, looking for wolf tracks, and gathering hair and scat samples where they are fresh to send off to the lab at Trent for DNA sequencing, the goal being to determine the concentration of Eastern/Algonquin Wolves outside of the park.

This work is taking place in the context of the development of a provincially mandated recovery strategy for the wolves.

In 2016 the Algonquin Wolf was listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act by the Committee on the Status of Species at Risk in Ontario (COSSARO). At the same time the wolf was given the new name Algonquin Wolf, and defned as a “hybrid group that collectively represents a genetically discrete cluster with morphological characteristics” in COSSARO’s words. The term Algonquin Wolf used in order to “differentiate it from other populations that have been labeled Eastern Wolf” by COSSARO.

The ‘Threatened’ designation under the Endangered Species Act triggers a responsibility on the part of the Ministry of Natural Resources of Ontario to develop a recovery strategy.

The strategy was prepared and released on the Environmental Bill of Rights Registry for a commentary period, before being adopted.

Among the measures that are called for in the strategy is a ban on hunting and trapping all canids, wolves or coyotes, not just in and around Algonquin park, as has been the case since 2001, but all the way east to the border with Quebec and west to Georgian Bay.

The territory roughly corresponds with a region that is considered moose country, and, according to Hannah Barron, there is good reason to ban trapping canids in moose country if you want to encourage he Algonquin Wolf population to a) remain healthy and b) refrain from hybridizing further with the Easter Coyote population.

“Coyotes do very well in populated areas and around roads,” said Barron. “They do not tend to get run over and they use road as easy travel routes. The Algonquin Wolves do not do as well at all. But, since they are bigger, they will hunt moose, and Coyotes don’t. It is only in moose country, where there are fewer roads, that the wolves have a competitive advantage.”

Barron’s view, which is supported by research from Trent University, is contradicted by the trapping community.

Not only do they see a ban on trapping Wolves and Coyotes those zones (which are north of the Frontenac News readership area) as a threat to their livelihood as trappers, they consider the science that justifies the ban as dubious at best.

The Ontario Fur Managers Association submitted a position paper during the commentary period for the strategy. The Association’s President is a trapper from Central Frontenac, Willis Deline, who is also a member of the Frontenac Trapper’s Association.

In Deline’s view, and that of the association, the first question is about the existence of the Eastern or Algonquin Wolf in the first place. They argue that there are only two species, Wolves and Coyotes, and the Algonquin Wolf is merely a hybrid of the two. Their position is supported by research sponsored from Princeton University, which published a study of the wolf/coyote genomes in July of 2016 in “Science Advances”.

The results of the study were the subject of an article in Science by Virginia Morelli.

The “study of the complete genomes of 28 canids reveals that despite differences in body size and behavior, North American gray wolves and coyotes are far more closely related than previously believed, and only recently split into two lineages. Furthermore, the endangered red and eastern wolves are not unique lineages with distinct evolutionary histories, but relatively recent hybrids of gray wolves and coyotes,” Morelli wrote.

The author of Princeton study, Bridgett Vanholdt challenges the notion of genetic purity in the first place and still thinks the Eastern (Algonquin) and Red Wolves should be protected.

In Willis Deline’s view, and that of his colleagues, the population in and artoud the park as well as the population further south where the Frontenac Trapper’s Association have their lines, are hybrid populations.

“The Coyotes that we see are nothing like what we saw before. They can weigh 50 and 70 pounds, and they are often in packs now,” he said, “this is a sign of hybridization.”

As Deline points out, Coyote pelts are now one of the few pelts that are marketable, and in his position with the Fur Manager Association, he has his members interests to think about.

But, he argues, the real opposition from the trapping community to the ban on hunting is based not only on the reality of the existence of the Algonquin Wolf, but also on the implications of a ban on the balance between the wolf, moose, beaver and deer population in the region.

“The history, on the ground, shows that sustainable trapping of Coyotes and Wolves does not lead to a decrease in the population although the packs are disrupted. But you also have to think about what ha[[ens when you stop hunting and trapping the top predator but keep huting and trapping the prey species” he said.

Deline also pointed out that the Trapper’s are a source of information that has not been tapped.

“No one asked us to work with them, to collect DNA samples so we can all be working from better science,” he said.

That is all changing, now. The Fur Managers Association and Trappers Council’s across the region will be sending samples to the Trent lab from now on, in the hope that a clearer picture will emerge about the relationship between coyotes and wolves in the entire region.

Last week, in response to all the submissions they have received, the Ministry of Natural Resource took the decision to delay implementation of the Algonquin Wolf Recovery Strategy for 18 months.

“Additional time is required to prepare the recovery strategy for Algonquin Wolf due to the complexity of the issue,” said the Ministry in its posting about the decision in what may have been an under-statement

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