You and your family might have experienced the wonder of hearing eastern wolves howl in Algonquin Provincial Park. It’s one of the longest running events of its kind in North America. It’s a tremendous opportunity to get to know one of our province’s most amazing species. What many people don’t know, however, is that these wolves currently have little protection outside of the park.
The eastern wolf, also known as the Algonquin wolf, is one of Ontario’s keystone species. But this top predator has lost most of its historical range in Canada and is now extirpated from the Atlantic provinces and the eastern United States. The highest numbers of eastern wolves are reportedly found in southern Quebec (north of the St. Lawrence River) and in central Ontario, particularly in Algonquin Provincial Park. The most recent population estimate pegs the number of mature individuals at between 250 and 1000 wolves – 65 per cent of which live in Ontario. That is an alarmingly low number for a species to survive in the long-term.
Human-caused mortality is a significant threat to eastern wolves. According to the federal Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada, “expansion of Eastern Wolves will not occur without protection from hunting and trapping throughout its range because juvenile dispersers are more susceptible to harvest.”
One of the challenges in protecting eastern wolves is that it is very difficult to visually distinguish this species from coyotes and other types of wolves. In other words, it is relatively easy for a hunter or trapper to accidentally kill an eastern wolf while actually intending to harvest a coyote or gray wolf.
Until recently, eastern wolves were classified as a species of “special concern” under the Endangered Species Act, 2007 (ESA). This means that, although the species is not endangered or threatened, there are identified threats and biological characteristics that could cause it to become threatened or endangered. Since 2004, there has been a moratorium on hunting and trapping wolves and coyotes in Algonquin Provincial Park and its surrounding townships.
In January 2016, the Committee on Species at Risk in Ontario downgraded the species’ status to “threatened,” meaning that the species is likely to become endangered if steps are not taken to address its threats. The Committee also renamed the species the Algonquin wolf.
Normally, the ESA makes it illegal to kill, harm, harass, capture or take a member of a threatened species. But the MNRF is proposing not to provide the full protection of the law to Algonquin wolves. Instead, the ministry is opting to close the wolf and coyote hunting and trapping seasons in three new areas – covering Killarney Provincial Park, Queen Elizabeth II Wildlands Provincial Park and Kawartha Highlands Provincial Park and parts of the surrounding townships. Outside of these areas, hunters and trappers would be exempt from the ESA’s prohibition on killing, harming or harassing Algonquin wolves provided that they are hunting or trapping in accordance with the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Act, 1997 and its regulations.
Essentially, the MNRF is proposing to protect wolves in several protected areas that already prohibit the hunting and trapping of wolves and coyotes.
The ministry is also proposing to extend protection for this species to the townships surrounding these parks. The MNRF has characterized this strategy as an “interim approach… intended to provide clarity around the protection and management of Algonquin Wolf in Ontario while the requirements under the ESA are being undertaken, including a science based-recovery strategy and a government response statement.”
The ECO has called for the protection of eastern wolves a number of times – in 2006, we recommended that eastern wolves be classified as “specially protected mammals” under the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Act, 2007. Specially protected mammals are not allowed to be hunted or trapped. (For further information on wolves, see the ECO’s Annual Reports from 2001/02, 2004/05, 2005/06 and 2010/11).