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Wolves the necessary predator

By Jim Moodie, The Sudbury Star, Friday, March 4, 2016

Rather than view wolves as the sort of fanged monsters depicted in European fairytales, Northern Ontarians should embrace them as subtle keepers of ecological balance.

That was the argument put forth Thursday night at a presentation hosted by the Sudbury Animal Rights Association titled Living With Wolves: Culls and Conservation.

"We shouldn't really fear that wolves will attack us, because it is so rare," said Hannah Barron, director of wildlife conservation campaigns with Earthroots. "There have only been two fatal attacks (in North America) in the past 120 years."

Indeed, more people in Canada have been killed by deer than by wolves.

Yet wolves are still demonized and scapegoated, she suggested, because they are misunderstood and represent "competition" by preying on many animals that humans also like to target as game.

"Hunters still want to kill a lot of moose, a lot of deer, and trappers still want to take a lot of beaver and make money from their pelts," she said. "So I would say that wolves in Ontario are generally managed as our competition."

In Western Canada, wolves have been particularly under the gun of late, with controversial culls and bounty programs initiated in B.C. and Alberta to ostensibly protect caribou and livestock.

Barron said Ontario, which limited hunting of wolves in 2005, is relatively better at safeguarding the species, but warned that some of that western attitude could creep east.

"I see what's going on in the west as something we should definitely avoid in Ontario," she said. "So far we've been fairly progressive, since 2005, and I think we can continue to take better steps and continue to protect wolves better -- and in so doing, actually protect our prey species better, too."

Wolves typically harvest sick and aging animals and "keep herds healthy," she said.

When they are eradicated, as occurred in the American west, it throws ecosystems out of balance.

Barron pointed to the example of Yellowstone National Park, where the reintroduction of wolves "changed the landscape dramatically" -- for the better.

Their presence made elk warier and drove them from the banks of streams that had become overgrazed, which in turn benefited the streams, which began to teem with fish.

"They are a keystone predator and when you remove them, everything falls apart," Barron said. "The main lesson I take from Yellowstone is that it's so difficult to rebuild an ecosystem, and what we have to do in Ontario is make sure they never leave."

At present Ontarians are allowed to hunt wolves, but must purchase a seal (which costs about $11) and can only harvest two per year, whether they are grey wolves or coyotes.

But a legislative change has been proposed, noted Barron, that would remove the requirement to purchase a seal, as well as "open the bag limit for coyotes in Northern Ontario."

She said the rationale of the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry for the move is to protect declining moose populations in the North, but in her view it's a misguided strategy that contradicts the ministry's own science.

"The ministry points out in their own Moose Project that loosening hunting restrictions for wolves will actually not benefit the moose, because it tends to be that when you splinter a wolf pack, they just end up having more wolves later," she said. "They have compensatory behaviour, essentially. The pack splinters and there are more breeding pairs and more wolves the following year."

Removing a wolf or two disrupts a delicate pack structure, in which all members -- not just the dominant breeding pair -- "help rear the young of the year," she noted. "If you hunt and trap them, that very cohesive structure will come apart and they break apart into more packs."

Barron said Ontarians should also be concerned about preserving the province's fragile population of eastern wolves, which primarily inhabit Algonquin Park and are related to the red wolves of the southeastern U.S.

There are only about 500 eastern wolves in all of North America, she noted, and most -- about 300 -- of those are in Ontario.

She said the animal's status was recently upgraded federally to threatened, a notch below endangered, and Ontario -- which currently classifies the eastern wolf as a species of special concern -- will likely follow suit.

The problem, said Barron, is that this smaller version of a grey (or timber) wolf is easily mistaken for a coyote, and will come under greater threat if Ontario loosens its rules on wolf and coyote hunting.

Sudbury is uniquely positioned in the province in terms of wolf distribution, she said.

"Not many people know we have the unique eastern wolf," she said. "And Sudbury is really interesting to me because it's at the northern periphery of where eastern wolves sometimes disperse to."

Meanwhile, the Sudbury area is commonly frequented by both grey wolves and coyotes, with the latter prominent on the edge of outlying towns and even a few neighbourhoods in the city proper.

"So right here we're kind of at the nexus of where the grey wolf, the eastern wolf and the coyote are all overlapping in one area."

Coyotes can be quite bold and adapt to areas of human settlement -- they've even been known to den in the cloverleafs of busy highways, noted Barron -- but, much like bears, will not be enticed into town unless people are leaving out food and attractants.

Barron strongly discourages tempting them -- inadvertently or deliberately -- with treats, as that typically only leads to habituation and a bad end for the animal.

"It's that old adage of a fed bear being a dead bear," she said. "It goes for just about any animal, and definitely for coyotes."

While the Earthroots campaigner is proud of the strategies Ontario has put in place to protect its wild canines, she worries that there's a change in attitude at Queen's Park.

Bill Mauro, the current MNRF minister, tabled a private member's bill prior to his cabinet appointment to reintroduce the spring bear hunt, and has overseen its expansion in his current role, she noted.

"I don't think that he believes predator conservation is at the top of the priority list, unfortunately," she said.

While the comment period on the ministry's proposed changes to wolf and coyote management has expired, Barron said Northerners who don't want to see these predators put under more hunting pressure can still make their views known.

"You can still comment on the Moose Project proposal," she noted. "There's an email, This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it., where they're still accepting comments in general, and people can say to the government, you know, we want you to conserve moose, but we don't want you to kill predators on moose because it's not going to work and it's not ethical."

This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Hannah Barron is Earthroots' Director of Wildlife Conservation Campaigns. For more information contact This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or visit our Wolves Ontario website.

 

View this article and results of the poll, "Should it become easier to hunt wolves in Ontario?", on the Sudbury Star's website.