Monday, September 11, 2006

Our Eastern wolves not endangered — so far

Estimates of their numbers might be widely off the mark

CAMERON SMITH - Toronto Star

I defy anyone who spots what appears to be an Eastern wolf in the woods to say whether it is a hybrid — part wolf, part coyote — or a full-blooded, genetically pure wolf. And this raises the question: Does it matter what it is? It certainly matters to those concerned with species at risk, because the Eastern wolf is designated as a species of special concern (sensitive to human activities and natural events). If population estimates are off, it could mean that the wolf is far more endangered than suspected.

Just how inaccurate estimates can be is illustrated by efforts in the United States to save the red wolf, a kissing cousin of the Eastern wolf and claimed by some to be the same species, long separated from its northern counterpart. The red wolf once roamed throughout the forests of eastern North America, but by the 1960s, only a scant handful remained, isolated in a three-county area of coastal marshes in southeastern Texas and in an equally small area of forest in north-central Louisiana. They had been hunted relentlessly, their habitat had been destroyed, and they had hybridized with coyotes until almost no true wolves were left.

The trouble was, the hybrids, there and elsewhere, looked like wolves, and no one realized until it was almost too late that the red wolf was almost extinct. In 1973, a wolf recovery program was established by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Karen Lockyear, who is completing her PhD at York University on the reproductive biology of red wolves, points out that under the U.S. effort, 400 wolves were captured between 1974 and 1980 to form the core of a breeding program.
However, of them, only 43 were not hybrids, and of those, only 14 were not inbred and had enough of the classic characteristics of the red wolf to qualify. In other words, when all those that looked like wolves were tested, only 3.5 per cent were actually true wolves with solid genetics.

A ratio such as this can't be directly applied to Ontario's Eastern wolves because their situation is not as extreme. They aren't as totally surrounded and outnumbered by coyotes as were the few remaining red wolves. Nevertheless, the figures send out a warning signal loud and clear that the extent of hybridization in Ontario may be far greater than anyone expects, especially since coyotes have expanded their territories so widely. They now can be found as far north as Red Lake in Ontario and Whitehorse in Yukon.

So, the estimate of the Ministry of Natural Resources (MNR) that there are 900 to 1,600 Eastern wolves in Ontario may be way off. What if there are only 500? Brent Patterson, an MNR field research scientist, says population estimates are calculated from aircraft surveys, trapping and hunting reports, and data from those wolves that are fitted with radio collars and tracked. But it's at best an inexact science, he acknowledges.

He wrestles with the question of which is more important: to preserve the genetic purity of Eastern wolves, or to let natural selection take its course? If a hybrid turns out to function better in the wild as a top predator, would that be a good thing?
I'm not sure which side to take in Patterson's dilemma. However, I am sure of one thing: Allowing the continued hunting of wolves outside the protected areas of Algonquin Park and its outlying townships is simply stupid. If we don't really know how many Eastern wolves there are and their survival is already a concern, why do we allow any hunting at all?

  • Toronto Star
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