Report puts park wolves in dire peril

Algonquin Wolves

The wolves of Algonquin Park, so loved by Ontarians, may be perilously close to disappearing, according to a report outlining a plan to protect them that was commissioned by John Snobelen, Minister of Natural Resources.

Yet, in a stunning contradiction, the same report recommends that hunting and trapping of the wolves be allowed to continue on the borders of the park.

There are only about 150 wolves in the park, and according to the general rule of thumb, that’s the minimum number that a local population needs in order to maintain its genetic diversity, and to withstand natural calamities.

However, as John and Mary Theberge point out in Wolf Country (McClelland & Stewart Inc., 1998, $24.99 in paperback), the rule of thumb doesn’t apply to Algonquin wolves. The rule presumes that there are at least 50 randomly mating breeders, but that’s not possible within the park because of the way the wolf packs are structured, they say.

Maintaining Algonquin’s wolves might not pose such a problem if they were no different from the eastern Canadian wolf that inhabits a broad swath extending from Timmins to Lake Ontario, and from Quebec to Manitoba.

But as the report says: « The wolves of Algonquin Park may be genetically unique and restricted to the park. Thus, small numbers of Algonquin wolves (as few as 150) would be at significant risk of inbreeding, loss of genetic variability, or even extinction through local catastrophes.’’

Given that statement, you’d think the report would urge a supremely cautious approach, recommending no hunting or trapping at all in a buffer zone surrounding the park — at least until it was proven whether Algonquin wolves are unique.

However, although the report recommends establishing a buffer zone in 40 townships around the park, it suggests that in all but four of them hunting be allowed for part of the year, particularly when wolf pelts are at their prime.

The four townships where hunting and trapping would be totally banned are near the highway crossing the park where park officials take visitors on public wolf howls.  The wolves there « are very important to the park’s internationally renowned interpretive program and ecotourism in the area,’’ the report says.

The contradiction of recommending hunting and trapping of what well may turn out to be an endangered species dovetails with the outlook of the Ministry of Natural Resources, which is dedicated to « harvesting’’ wildlife while, at the same time, claiming to be its protector. It is a deeply conflicted approach that, in concentrating on economic worth of the wolves, fails to value the diversity they represent, and ultimately ignores their importance in maintaining ecological balances within the park.

Elsewhere in Ontario, there is an open season on wolves. So the fur industry would not likely to run short of pelts, and sport hunters would not go disappointed, if a total ban on killing were placed throughout the buffer zone.

Within the park, the territories of the wolf packs range from 15 to 20 kilometres in diameter. But, say the Theberges, half the land in the park lies within 10 kilometres of a boundary. So only slightly more than half of the 30 packs in the park — those in the centre — have territories totally within the park. The territories of the remaining packs lay partly outside the park. So nearly half of the parks’ 150 wolves have territories that extend into hunting and trapping areas.

The report expresses the pious hope that hunters could be persuaded to « voluntarily refrain from harvesting wolves’’ in the buffer zone. And that trappers would cooperate « in reporting their harvests of wolves (which) will be very helpful in assessing the effects of management.’’

What nonsense. If Mr. Snobelen is sincerely interested in saving the parks’ wolves, he should simply ban all hunting and trapping in the buffer zone. What the wolves need is protection, not pious hopes. And instead of looking to trappers for help in assessing progress, he should arrange to have the wolves monitored, as the Theberges and their students have been doing for a dozen years.


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