By Jim Moodie / Postmeda
It’s called the Algonquin wolf but it ranges as far as Algoma.
According to a report from the province’s environmental commissioner released Tuesday, these mid-size, threatened wolves extend from “from Peterborough to North Bay, and from Pembroke to Sault Ste. Marie.”
DNA sampling done in Killarney Provincial Park in recent years has confirmed the species’ presence there.
It’s even possible the wolf spied this summer on the side of Highway 637 by many Killarney visitors was of the Algonquin variety. That was the theory of at least one wildlife specialist.
But between their small population — there could be as few as 154 adult Algonquin wolves in all of Ontario — and lax rules around their harvest, it’s conceivable they could entirely disappear from the landscape.
“These wolves are precious and endangered,” said Dianne Saxe. “And we shouldn’t be allowing things that kill them.”
The environmental commissioner examined eight subjects in her annual report, titled Good Choices, Bad Choices.
Saxe would certainly include management decisions around the Algonquin wolf in the latter category.
“The very basic principle of the Endangered Species Act is that it’s illegal to kill or harm or harass or destroy the habitat of a threatened or endangered species,” she said. “And that is the Algonquin wolf — but the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry has stripped them of protection in much of the area where they live.”
The animal was initially classified as a species of special concern, but last year was upgraded to threatened — just below endangered.
“The best estimates we’ve seen is there are perhaps 250 mature wolves alive in the entire world, and two-thirds of those are in Ontario,” said Saxe.
Yet just a few months after the Algonquin wolf gained more protections under the Endangered Species Act — as well as a new official name; it was previously called the eastern wolf — the province effectively exempted the animal from ESA safeguards, Saxe argues.
“They have provided some protection, in and very close to a few parks (including Killarney),” she said. “But how is the wolf supposed to know that?”
Adult wolves will teach their pups to hunt, and eventually those youngsters will leave the pack to establish their own territories and families. “So they will inevitably stray outside the small protected area, and then they can be killed,” said Saxe. “And a large number of them are being killed.”
An Algonquin wolf is easily confused with a coyote or smaller timber wolf by sight, and a trap “definitely doesn’t know the difference,” noted Saxe.
In Northern Ontario, hunters can bag two wolves per year, while trappers are allowed to catch as many wolves as they want.
Trappers in this area were upset to learn last year that a ban on wolf harvesting was being extended from Killarney Park to a buffer area equally big in size, encompassing Burwash.
A wolf pelt, however, doesn’t fetch much money — the average price for a coyote pelt last year was $49.91, while a wolf hide was $83.50, according to the ECO report — so Saxe contends the overall financial benefit of trapping is minimal.
“The best estimate we had is that, in the entire province, people are making maybe $70,000 in a year,” she said. “A few hundred dollars for a hunter or a trapper in a year, at most.”
Coyotes have become a concern in communities on the edge of Sudbury — Coniston, for instance, has seen plenty in recent years — and farmers worry about them making off with chickens and lambs.
But if Algonquin and timber wolves are also inadvertently killed as part of an effort to reduce coyote pressure — or targeted, for that matter, because they’re just another wolf — this will only exacerbate the problem, according to the commissioner.
“Coyotes have moved in because the wolves have been killed,” said Saxe. “They take advantage of the vacant niche, so killing wolves just means you have more coyotes, and it’s not better for the livestock.”
Levels of livestock predation are relatively low in the area where Algonquin wolves are found, according to her report, and farmers can be compensated for any losses they do experience through a provincial program.
A wolf attack on a person is almost unheard of — former Science North staffer Trisha Wyman was killed by wolves in 1996, but these were captive animals at a Haliburton reserve — and the species plays a key role in maintaining ecosystem equilibrium, the ECO report notes.
Rather than risk losing more Algonquin wolves over a questionable need for wolf harvesting in general, they should be spared from hunting and trapping across the extent of their range, says Saxe, even if that means their non-threatened cousins are also off-limits in the places where they overlap.
“In the area where they predominantly live, they should be protected from harvest,” she said. “This is the only threatened species in Ontario that the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry deliberately allows people to kill.”
To read the chapter on Algonquin wolves in the environmental commissioner’s report, visit tinyurl.com/y7cobtsx.