The Raven Visitors’ Newsletter

You "Red" it Here First From the Algonquin Provincial Park The Raven Visitors’ Newsletter

Algonquin Provincial Park in Ontario hosts a population of wolves that have generally been considered gray wolves – until recently. Residents and visitors to the Park, however, have always known that the Algonquin wolves were "different" than many subspecies of gray wolves. They tended to be smaller and more brownish with reddish coloring behind the ears. In some areas, hybridization with coyotes was threatening the genetic integrity of this wolf.

As wolves were extirpated from much of their range in the United States and south central Canada, coyotes (historically a western prairie species) expanded their range. The changes in the habitat of the eastern US created a favorable habitat for coyotes; their range now encompasses the mainland US and parts of southern Canada.

Widespread persecution, habitat alterations, and hybridization with coyotes nearly caused the extinction of the red wolf. The remaining red wolf population, having been reduced to a handful of individuals near the Texas and Louisiana border) was brought back from the brink of extinction by the US Fish and Wildlife Service in the 1970’s and 1980’s. Today the number of red wolves stands at about 270, about one hundred in the wild in northeastern North Carolina and about 170 in captivity. Much attention was brought to the red wolf when several US scientists published information stating that the red wolf is not a true species, rather it is a hybrid between the gray wolf and the coyote. Under this theory, the original wolf of the eastern US was the gray wolf. The red wolf came into being as the dwindling gray wolf population in the eastern US bred with the population of coyotes that had migrated from the west. This theory would explain why red wolves have characteristics midway between the gray wolf and the coyote such as size, sociality, and vocalizations.

The issue of hybridization began to interest researchers and residents in Canada, since many wolves throughout the southern range of the gray wolf from Minnesota to Quebec (including the Algonquin wolves) showed signs of hybridization with coyotes. Pictures of the newly popular and controversial red wolves in magazine articles were strikingly similar to wolves of Algonquin. Did both the red wolf and the Algonquin wolf develop through hybridization with coyotes?

The answer to that question, according the Brad White of McMaster University and Paul Wilson of Trent University, both in Ontario, is "no." These Canadian researchers propose that based on new genetic evidence, the red wolf is a valid species and was not derived from gray wolf/coyote hybridization. They also propose that the gray wolf from Minnesota to Quebec (including Algonquin Park) resemble red wolves because they are red wolves! Therefore, the wolves of Algonquin Park in Ontario are not a small gray wolf but rather a northern race of red wolf.

White and Wilson are proposing foregoing the name red wolf in favor of the name eastern wolf, with Canis lycaon as the scientific name. This wolf would have originally lived in the forests of North America east of the prairies from the Gulf of Mexico up to southern Canada. As Europeans settled eastern North America, they extirpated the red/eastern wolf from the central range, leaving some animals to the south (red wolves) and some animals to the north (Algonquin wolves.)

This theory has not been critically reviewed by other scientists, so no change in taxonomic classification is official. Regardless of what they are called, the wolves of Algonquin and the red wolves in North Carolina will continue to live their lives as wolves do. However, the change in classification could place management of the northern race of the highly endangered red/eastern wolf on a much more important level. After all, the southern race was nearly extinct with hybridization with coyotes as the final factor only 30 years ago. Could the Algonquin wolf be next?

The World Wildlife Fund and the Ontario Government support examination of the management, viability, and classification of the red/eastern wolf in Algonquin through the prestigious International Union for the Conservation of Nature. The results of that examination and the latest thinking on this important new development will be available before next summer.