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An Algonquin wolf standing in a snowbank near a road
Algonquin wolves can be legally killed in many parts of Ontario. (Helen E. Grose), Author provided (no reuse)

The erosion of Ontario’s Endangered Species Act threatens iconic Algonquin wolf

Harming dogs is a criminal act in Ontario, but shooting wolves is a sport. And while animal welfare legislation was recently strengthened, protection for Algonquin wolves could soon be set back if the government invokes changes made last year to the Endangered Species Act.

When Ontario shut down in March, resources rightly focused on public health. By then, however, the government was already far behind on its obligation to protect and recover the Algonquin wolf. Listed as threatened on June 15, 2016, the law at the time required immediate protection and mandated a formal Algonquin wolf recovery plan within two years.

The previous Liberal government protected hotspots, but exempted areas in between. Then in January 2018, they posted a draft recovery strategy for public comment, followed by a request for more time to review feedback. While we waited, Ontario elected a new Conservative premier.

A year later, the new government passed Bill 108, the “More Homes, More Choice Act” into law, revising the Endangered Species Act with amendments that impede wildlife conservation.

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The changes privilege development over habitat protection, extend the timeline for a government response to listing recommendations to up to five years, undermine the expertise of scientists and allow the environment minister to bypass legal protection for species and their habitat when it’s convenient.

For Algonquin wolves, the ongoing government delay allows hunting and trapping to continue and raises concerns that the government could ignore science-based recommendations in favour of organizations that lobby against wolf hunting bans. There is precedent.

In August 2019, the government proposed easing restrictions on grey wolf and coyote hunting in Northern Ontario to protect moose. The move was based on recommendations from a government-appointed Big Game Management Advisory Committee made up of hunters, trappers and commercial outfitters.

The proposal ignores the work of research scientists who say this will do little to improve moose numbers, and disregards issues of habitat, disease and climate change. Notably, the previous government rejected the same proposal due to lack of scientific evidence.

Hunting a threatened species

Algonquin wolves face an uncertain future primarily because they can be legally shot and trapped in many parts of Ontario. In most unprotected corridors, certified hunters can shoot two wolves between September 15 and March 31 with a small game license and a wolf tag. In others, it is open season all year. No tags required.

This harsh truth often comes as a shock to many. Especially since fewer than 1,000 mature Algonquin wolves remain and half are in Ontario. Most are within central Ontario’s provincial parks, including Algonquin and Killarney. Beyond that, protected areas are patchy and separated by swaths of land where wolves often meet their demise at the hands of humans.

As a case in point, when captive wolves escaped from the Haliburton Forest Wolf Centre into an unprotected corridor on New Year’s Day in 2013, the outcome was quick and predictable. Within 24 hours someone shot two of the four and left them to die. The fate of the others remains unknown, but their chances were slim. A wealth of research shows that beyond protected areas more wolves die from hunting and trapping than from all other causes combined.

That’s why the draft Algonquin wolf recovery strategy recommends connecting protected areas across central Ontario to create an Algonquin Wolf Recovery Zone. But the process remains, inexplicably, in limbo.

Algonquin wolves are distinct

Algonquin wolves are unique to Canada because they have a distinctive genetic signature. Why is that important? Think of it like saving money for a rainy day, except the wolves’ currency is genetic variation and the rainy day is climate change. Species depend on genetic variation to protect them against unexpected upheavals in their environment. Fewer animals means less variation and higher risk of extinction.

An Algonquin wolf stands among frost-covered plants
An Algonquin wolf recovery plan was mandated to be in place in 2018, but it has yet to be finalized. (Helen E Grose), Author provided (no reuse)

The Algonquin wolf has at its core a unique North American wolf genome (the eastern Canadian wolf), with some genetic signal from coyotes and, to a lesser extent, grey wolves.

Their evolutionary history places them alongside coyotes, solely within North America. Grey wolves, on the other hand, migrated to North America from Eurasia thousands of years ago.

In 2018, a team of international researchers analyzed the largest dataset to date on Algonquin wolves. The conclusion? Algonquin wolves’ unique genomic composition and their fragmented protection in central Ontario make them a conservation priority.

A significant challenge, however, is a common misunderstanding of how science defines species. Some people protest that Algonquin wolves are just hybrids — a “made-up species” that doesn’t warrant conservation. By that logic, humans must also be a fiction because we have bits of Neanderthal and Denisovan DNA in our genome.

Advances in genome sequencing have revolutionized our understanding of how species interact and evolve. Interbreeding between closely related species creates mixed genomes in a wide array of plants and animals. Hybrid origins is the new normal.

Wolves maintain healthy ecosystems

We need wolves. They help maintain the natural order of ecosystems. Their presence improves the health of deer populations by weeding out the old and sick, and prevents the widespread destruction of plant life that sustains the biodiversity we rely on for goods (such as medicine) and services (such as tourism).

At the same time, wolves — like dogs — nurture our spirit and improve our well-being simply by being there. They represent and protect what environmentalists, First Nations, conservation scientists and hunters alike may value most: untamed and untouched wilderness.

Yet Ontario’s hunting and trapping organizations continue to lobby for relaxed wolf harvest regulations and seek to discredit recommendations of the recovery strategy.

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But researchers first flagged Algonquin wolves as distinct just 20 years ago, at which point hunting, wolf culls and bounties had already taken their toll. Beyond reducing numbers, intensive hunting exacerbates hybridisation with coyotes and the current population size equates to dangerously low levels of genetic potential.

Many people — including many hunters — question wolf hunting on ethical grounds. Wolves are not food, so researchers Chris Darimont and Paul Paquet from the University of Victoria argue that wolf hunting regulations in this country “are embarrassingly out of step with societal values.” They suggest that attempts to legitimize trophy and sport hunting use a “smokescreen of scientific wildlife management.” Public opinion polls in British Columbia support that claim.

Conservation depends on government action

After a 2007 update, Ontario’s Endangered Species Act was one of the strongest pieces of legislation in North America. It has since been diluted for convenience and short-sighted economic gains, first by the Liberal government in 2013 and again in 2019 by the current Conservative government.

Premier Doug Ford’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic was impressive in large part because it relied on independent research and was resolutely non-partisan. It’s this type of foresight and resolve that will be needed to save Algonquin wolves. In the end, all voices need to be heard, but science should prevail.

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