Motivated by moose management practices, the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry (MNRF) submitted a proposal December 2015, to the Environmental Registry, seeking amendments to regulations affecting wolf and coyote hunting in Northern Ontario. Priority recommendations suggest removal of the $11 game seal fee, removal of harvest limits on coyotes and elimination on reporting requirements of hunting activities. Unchanged by the proposal would be the existing two bag limit on wolf per hunter per year and the requirement to report harvesting. Hunters would only require a small game licence to shoot wolves or coyotes. Northern Ontario is populated by two wolf species, the Grey Wolf and the Eastern Wolf.
According to the MNRF, proposed changes intend to: address the concerns in recent years about the impacts of wolf predation on moose in northern Ontario; address concerns about the requirement to purchase a seal in northern Ontario; maintain controls necessary to ensure the sustainability of wolf or coyote populations in northern Ontario; and not impact current protections for the Eastern Wolf population in their core range in central Ontario.
Regarding the management of moose populations through proposed amendments, even supporters of the proposal question the efficiency of the above rationale.
Mark Ryckman, senior wildlife biologist with the Ontario Federation of Anglers and Hunters, expresses doubt. “We understand the desire to maintain the two bag wolf limit. But in some areas of the province there can be really high wolf populations and concurrently really low moose populations. If the goal is to generate a benefit for moose populations, then limiting hunters to two wolves per year in some of those areas would not be effective to create a benefit for moose.”
Proposal rationale set out by MNRF seems to be incongruent with their own science. In their findings from their Moose Project, MNRF states of the interdependent relationship between wolves and ungulates:
Higher populations of prey species, such as moose and deer, can support higher populations of wolves. Predation rates on moose by wolves tend to increase in tandem with moose numbers. This naturally regulates the density of the moose population and is ultimately beneficial to moose and the ecosystems they rely on. At very high densities, moose populations can degrade their own habitat, and experience increased occurrences of parasites such as winter ticks. Moose with brain worm or high numbers of winter ticks may be easier wolf prey in late winter.
Dr. Anne Bell, Ontario Nature’s Director of Conservation and Education, questions the justification of amendments that rely on claims that moose populations will increase. “We have a position on this proposal but we are neither for nor against hunting in principal. There are ecological reasons to oppose this,” clarified Dr. Bell. “In terms of the science the MNRF sums it up in their own backgrounder –it’s not going to have a positive influence on moose populations. The only way to have an impact and increase prey, at least temporarily, is to take out the entire pack. Thankfully that’s not being proposed here but when it has been done, it’s a short-term solution.”
The MNRF’s Moose Project report underpins Dr. Bell’s point above stating:
The number of moose killed per wolf pack will not significantly decrease as the pack size is reduced, so removing just a few wolves from each pack will not decrease overall predation on moose. Only the removal of an entire pack can substantially reduce predation but this practice may not be ecologically or socially desirable.
Dr. Bell questions the need to increase moose populations in the areas where hunting amendments have been proposed. “These areas are showing healthy moose populations.”
Of great concern to Dr. Bell is the endangerment of the Eastern Wolf. In May 2015, the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC), designated the Eastern Wolf as a ‘threatened’ species. “At the moment there are no protections for Eastern Wolf under either the federal Species at Risk Act or the
provincial Endangered Species Act,” commented Dr. Bell.
However, there are specific areas where it is not permitted to hunt the Eastern Wolf. The species is protected in Central Ontario where they tend to populate, especially in Algonquin Park and area townships. Regardless, Dr. Bell is concerned that geographical boundaries will not protect the Eastern Wolf should the amendments take effect in 2017. “The northern region
actually abuts the region of Algonquin Park and surrounding townships – the stronghold of the at-risk Eastern Wolf,” she remarked. Human boundaries will not prevent the movement of the Eastern Wolf out of protected zones.
The Species at Risk Public Registry (SRPR) indicates that there is little population trend information about the Eastern Wolf outside of Algonquin Park. The backgrounder specifies that the estimated minimum population size of the Eastern Wolf is 236 mature individual wolves -and about 500 in total, located mainly within protected areas. A study from 1987 to 1999, found that “wolves on the east side of Algonquin Park follow White-tailed Deer to deer yards located outside the protection of the Park during the winter months. Many White-tailed deer on the Park’s east side travel to the Round Lake Deer Yard near Round Lake Centre, Ontario. …Wolves would make trips into the deer yard to kill and consume deer and then travel back to their home territories inside the protection of Algonquin Park.”
According to SRPR, the main threat for Eastern Wolves outside of protected areas is likely human-caused mortality from hunting and trapping. Based on research in Algonquin Park, “excessive mortality rates limits dispersal, and alters pack breeding dynamics, leading to another main threat, hybridization with Eastern Coyotes.”
The Committee on the Status of Species at Risk in Ontario (COSSARO) is reassessing the classification of the Eastern Wolf his year. “The Eastern Wolf may well be bumped up to classification under a higher level of risk,” remarked Dr. Bell. A higher classification status would indicate ‘Endangerment’ of the species and could lead to protective measures.
Further challenging the survivability of the Eastern Wolf is the difficulty in distinguishing the species from the Eastern Coyote. It has been noted of hunters and biologists alike, distinguishing the Eastern Wolf from the Eastern Coyote in the field is impossible. Eastern Wolves can only be distinguished from Eastern Coyotes through genetic analysis. According to Dr. Bell, this confusion is especially troubling should the MNRF’s recommendation to remove harvesting limitation on coyotes become a regulation in 2017.
“MNRF is proposing to loosen rules just enough so that anyone out there with a gun can pop off a wolf if they happen to see one as long as they have their small game license. What’s to stop someone from taking more than two wolves if they can’t distinguish between an Eastern Wolf, or for that matter a Grey Wolf, and a coyote?”
Dr. Bell reiterates that Ontario nature remains perplexed as to how MNRF arrived to the rationale that proposed amendments would contribute to increased moose populations. Of Ontario Nature’s position on the matter Dr. Bell remarks, “We would like the MNRF to base policy on science. There is absolutely no science that supports this proposal so it begs the question ‘why is this proposal being put on the table’. It’s not in the interest of the vast majority of Ontarians and there’s no scientific basis for proceeding with it.”
MNRF’s impetus –increasing moose populations, for the proposed amendments can be confusing when one scrutinizes MNRF’s observations regarding wolf predation:
Generally, wolves prey mostly on young moose and older moose past their prime, and consume few prime-breeding-age moose. However, moose populations in areas that are the most heavily hunted tend to include fewer calves and older moose. As a result, wolves prey on more prime-breeding-age moose during the winter months in these areas. This results in overall higher mortality of moose and may reduce moose population growth.
Many studies, such as the Isle Royale project, have illuminated the interconnected significance between wolves, moose and the ecology. Michael Runtz is a professor at Carleton University and one of Canada’s most highly respected naturalists as well as a best-selling author. Included among his ten best sellers is his book The Howls of August: Encounters with Algonquin Wolves. Runtz also leads annual public wolf howls for Bonnechere Provincial Park and Algonquin Park.
Of MNRF’s proposal, Runtz expressed the recommendations were “archaic”. “To think that by killing off more wolves indiscriminately will help ungulate populations is a myth.”
Runtz reinforced wolves make critical and practical contributions to a complex ecosystem. “In terms of ecological connections, wolves are a very important species, especially in Northern areas and in particular during the winter. When wolves kill an animal there is always scrap leftover. These scraps sustain a lot of animals in winter. Animals like fishers, martens, wolverines, ravens, grey jays, eagles, foxes -many animals scavenge a wolf killed carcass. Wolves play an extremely important role in sustaining other animal lives in Ontario. When food is hard to come by, especially in tough winters when the snow is deep and the cold is extreme, then I dare say a lot of animals would perish if they couldn’t obtain the extra nourishment they receive by scavenging a wolf killed animal.”
Runtz corroborates MNRF’s above observation that wolves typically do not prey on prime moose.
“In terms of effects on ungulate populations, it’s been shown repeatedly that when wolves do kill it’s not really a healthy animal that they are killing, especially when it’s a moose. Moose are big powerful animals. Moose killed by wolves tend to be old, sick or very young animals. So wolves, in killing moose or caribou, actually tend to improve the populations health overall because they are eliminating animals that carry disease or genetic defects. Hunting does the opposite. Hunters go for the best animals, carrying the best genes and remove those from the population. One can never equate hunting by humans with wolf kills. To say that killing off wolves is ‘ok’ and that hunters will take care of the surplus moose to maintain a healthy population is not true.”
In her submission to the Environmental Registry, Dr. Bell cautions of the villainization and misrepresentation of wolves and coyotes, writing on behalf of Ontario Nature states:
It is the job of the MNRF to apply conservation science to steward wildlife and the complex ecosystems that they inhabit, and to educate the public about ways to maintain healthy, functioning ecosystems. The proposed changes, and lack of accompanying monitoring will spur antipathy towards wildlife that was more typical of unenlightened times. The decreased oversight and removal of any limits to the number of coyotes that can be killed feeds a regrettable and indefensible narrative that predators are vermin as opposed to an integral and crucial part of natural communities that have evolved over thousands of years.
While it is indisputable to many that wolves –and coyotes, are critical for the preservation of ungulates and the ecosystem, Runtz is quick to point out that there is a significant primal connection between humans and wolves. As mankind spreads his mark across the landscape, the wolf is an important reminder that we are also natural creatures and must achieve respect and harmony with all the creatures upon this earth.
“The importance of wolves as a symbol of the wild is not to be overlooked. For a lot of people wilderness is something they have trouble connecting with. One way they connect with wilderness and wolves in general is the wolf howl. It’s a very important part of our heritage and a very important part of Ontario,” remarks Ryckman. “When you hear a wolf howl, it brings you back to a distant time in our past. It really connects us to the wilds and it evokes an emotion that’s not readily available to us anymore. It’s just a wild uninhibited emotion that comes deep from within. It’s a feeling that is rarely inspired these days.”
When one considers the contributions that wolves make to the ecosystem and the obvious point that nobody eats wolf meat, answering the question ‘why hunt wolves’ becomes challenging. Ryckman offered an answer.
“Hunters would be utilizing the pelt. Hunters might harvest a wolf once in their lifetime to get a wolf pelt. But how many wolf pelts does someone need in their basement? They’re likely to never do it again. The motivation behind bear hunting and moose hunting and deer hunting compared to predator hunting is much different,” commented Ryckman. “Wolves, and bears, are what we call a ‘charismatic mega-fauna’. They really attract emotional attention and it can be difficult to divorce ourselves from the emotions when we are trying to make wildlife management decisions.”
Runtz sums it up a little differently. “Sport hunting is a big part of it. Generally for a sport hunter it’s not a need to sustain their lives through meat, it’s a need to kill something for a trophy.”
As noted at the beginning of this article, residents pay $11 for a game seal but out of province hunters shell out $272 for the seal. Information provided by OFAH establishes in 2013, wolf and coyote hunting game seals generated about $130,000 to the province. An insignificant amount when compared to the financial revenue generated the same year through the sale of game seals for bear -at 50 bucks a ding, the province pulled in about a million bucks.
Of MNRF’s proposed removal of the very economical $11 game seal, Ryckman stated that the move was a matter of access, not expense. “It’s less of a financial burden than it is an access issue. In Northern Ontario, a lot of moose and deer hunters are in remote areas. If they don’t purchase a wolf or coyote game seal before they head out and they don’t have it on them while they’re hunting, they lose the rare opportunity that they may come across a wolf or coyote. Game seals are generally only available at Service Ontario sites.”
In 2013, about 20,000 bear game seals were sold in Ontario -16,000 going to provincial residents and 4,000 going to non-resident hunters. The number of wolf and coyote game seals sold the same year pales in comparison – a total of 3,800 with 300 of those sold to non-resident hunters. That same year, 130 wolves were harvested in the province of Ontario- a success rate of approximately 3.5%.
The numbers suggest that not only is wolf hunting challenging, it is also unpopular, and coupled with the ineffectiveness of increasing moose population by reducing wolf populations, MNRF’s proposed amendments seem pointless. Those who oppose the recommendations, like Ontario Nature, are scratching their heads and trying to figure out the sense in this proposal.
In her submission to the Environmental Registry, Dr. Bell concludes, “Given that the proposed changes are highly unlikely to address moose decline in northern Ontario, we are left wondering about the real purpose of this proposal. Is it simply to make it easier for hunters to opportunistically shoot wolves? Is it a misguided political move to appeal to northern voters? Is it just a shot in the dark? Whatever the reason, it appears to constitute a gross abandonment of MNRF’s mandate ‘to promote healthy, sustainable ecosystems and conserve biodiversity’.”