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Call of the Wild: The Wolves of Algonquin Park

Algonquin Park has long been recognized as one of Ontario’s premiere destinations for local outdoor enthusiasts and tourists alike. With more than 2,000 kilometres of canoe routes and portages, hundreds of lakes and rivers, and nearly 2,000 campsites, the Park supports a variety of world-class recreational activities. However, for many, no experience is quite as thrilling, or as memorable, as a late night conversation with the eastern wolf.

Since 1963, the Park has been organizing public wolf howls throughout August and early September. After a brief information session at Algonquin’s outdoor theatre, participants accompany Park staff by vehicle (and occasionally on foot!) to pre-selected spots along Highway 60, where staff howl into the dark of night and wait quietly for a reply. Over the past 50 years, literally hundreds of thousands of people have delighted in this nocturnal ritual.

However, the presence of these elusive predators should not be taken for granted. Today, Algonquin Park is home to approximately 35 packs of eastern wolves, and, along with the surrounding townships, represents the primary range for the species. This is due, in no small measure, to the continuing presence of a functioning forest ecosystem within the Park boundaries. Eastern wolves are largely dependent on deciduous and mixed forests (such as those found in the Park) for their habitat, and while land conversion activities outside the Park have affected both the quality and extent of habitat, the Park remains an important epicentre for the current wolf population.

Over the years, the eastern wolves in the region have faced various challenges. In addition to land clearing for other uses, historic hunting and trapping outside the Park have posed a serious threat to the integrity of the species-however, not necessarily in a way that one might expect. Although hunting and trapping were ultimately shown to have minimal to no long-term impacts on the size of the wolf population, they did have a notable impact on its make-up. The elimination of wolves as they crossed out of the Park resulted in an influx of other canine species, most notably coyotes, when wolf territories became temporarily unoccupied. Instances of coyotes even being ‘adopted’ into packs to replace lost individuals became a known occurrence. This in turn led to inter-breeding between species culminating in a genetic dilution of eastern wolf populations. Research indicates that at one point 80% of wolf packs in the Park contained unrelated, or

adopted, animals.

In 2002, the provincial government banned the hunting and trapping of wolves in the townships surrounding the Park, with positive results. Protection from trapping/hunting has made the population more resistant to coyote incursions and has allowed individual packs to return to a more natural state. Today, Algonquin is known to have one of the most genetically pure populations of eastern wolf, with recent estimates suggesting that 94% of packs are family based, that is, made up exclusively of an unrelated breeding pair of eastern wolves and their offspring.

Modern forest management practices have also played an important role in sustaining the long-term health of Algonquin’s wolf packs. Although forestry activities do not generally affect the survival of wolves, protocols have been established to protect sensitive habitat such as dens and rendezvous sites within the Park. At an ecosystem level, it is believed that forestry may benefit wolves by creating improved habitat for its prey, including moose and beaver. In fact, revised harvesting practices in riparian areas (along water bodies) outside of the Park are designed to promote beaver, a prey species that has been positively correlated to wolf pup survival. Forest managers are eager to apply this direction inside the Park, however, direction contained within the broader Algonquin Park Management Plan currently restricts this approach.

For now, the population levels, and lineage, of Algonquin’s wolves are stable and there is reason to be optimistic for the future. If you are ever in doubt, you can always travel up to the Park and ask them yourself!

For more information on wolf howls, please visit www.algonquinpark.on.ca.

Article by Scott Jackson. Photo courtesy of Algonquin Forestry Authority.