Wolf Awareness is a non-profit Canadian organization dedicated to the conservation of wolves through research and public education about wolf ecology.

Are wolves protected? NOT adequately….a case for buffer zones

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“Canada has a chance to do something no other country has done: deliberately to conserve healthy wild populations of different types of wolves on one of the last landscapes still capable of supporting such a conservation goal”.
World Wildlife Fund 1991 – Hummel & Pettigrew

In Canada, the wolf was extirpated from the Atlantic Provinces by the 1900s, becoming extinct in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick by 1870 and in Newfoundland by 1911. Wolves have been pushed out of the southern portion of Quebec and Ontario. Prairie or “buffalo wolves” became extinct in the 19th century. Urbanization is also creating conflicts among people and this predator in  parts of southern British Columbia. Only 1.2% of the wolf range in Canada is currently protected from hunting and trapping (1995 figure).

“Although wolves require an adequate prey base, the defining factor in wolf persistence is protection from humans. Human use and access can be directly linked to wolf mortality rates and locations around the Parks.  Where prey abundance is low, human use becomes even more significant to adversely affect wolves.” – Regional Perspectives on Ecosystem Indicators & Issues. 2002

Although the gray wolf is one of the world’s most widely distributed animals, approximately one third of its range has been reduced by human persecution and/or habitat fragmentation, and it has been extirpated from much of Western Europe, the United States, and Mexico (36).

What protection are wolves in Canada given?

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Canada provides one of the greatest opportunities worldwide to ensure that wolves continue to thrive as part of a functioning predator-prey ecosystem. Large carnivores are declining across Canada and the globe. Presently, even the largest North American parks are inadequate in size to fully protect wolves (1,4,7,8).

sadie-bc-wolf-kill-and-hunt-mapHabitat loss, persecution, depletion of prey and human intolerance are threatening large carnivores around the globe, with three quarters of the world’s largest carnivores now in decline (36). At the same time, we are only just beginning to understand the dynamic and important ecological influences and economic benefits large carnivores such as wolves contribute to the planet!  Most areas of Canada do not offer protection for wolves, allowing them to be hunted or trapped for large segments of the year, including nursing mothers and pups. For an example, see our highlighted map showing BC hunting and trapping regulations for 2016- 2018.  Approximate locations of BC government wolf kill programs are shown in yellow.

Too often the landscapes that were originally protected have turned out to be too small for wide-ranging umbrella species and keystone species, such as wolves, wolverines, grizzly bears and caribou. It is only through recent research that we have discovered this.  Now we must adapt our parks and protected areas to reflect this new knowledge (eg. Buffer Zones), but first we have to convince decision makers that this is important to us.

Even though large carnivores such as wolves are protected within Canada’s parks, these predators are threatened by stresses such as human use and development inside parks, as well as hunting, land development, transportation routes and other pressures that occur outside park boundaries. From Ontario eastward, wolves are gone from all national parks except Pukaskwa and La Mauricie. In the west, wolves have disappeared from Elk Island and Grasslands national parks. In several national parks, wolf populations are low and have a low probability of persistence. (16)

Wolf ecologists Paul Paquet and Lu Carbyn, who have been studying Canadian wolves both inside and outside of protected areas for several decades assert that the ‘effectiveness of existing reserves that are too small, or have unsuitable configurations, could be improved by the creation of buffer zones’.(8)

Map courtesy of Peter A. Dettling depicts wolf pack territories extending beyond park boundaries. Map courtesy of Peter A. Dettling depicts wolf pack territories extending beyond park boundaries, where Parks wolves are often killed by hunting or trapping.

The ONLY PLACE IN CANADA that wolves receive full protection from hunting, trapping, and government predator kill programs are within National Parks. Many Canadians, as well as people around the world, are under the impression that Canada remains a vast wilderness with ample protection for wolves and other large carnivores. National Parks are still viewed by many as safe-havens where ecological integrity is the priority. The unfortunate reality is that protected areas in Canada are not large enough for multiple wolf families to live safely removed from human threats. Renowned large carnivore expert Dr. Paul Paquet and others describe this in their Summary Report on the Effects of Human Activity on Gray Wolves in the Bow River Valley, Banff National Park. Beyond these artificial boundaries hunting and trapping seasons are extremely lax (eg. many areas with long seasons (9 – 12 months), no bag limits, no quotas, no specific tag required, no mandatory reporting, and many Parks wolves are killed in snares in trap lines adjacent to National Parks. Note that most provincial parks allow hunting and trapping of wolves.

Tune in to this CBC radio documentary to hear Wolf Awareness discuss the ghetto-life wolves face in the Mountain National Parks:  http://www.cbc.ca/radio/docproject/a-wolf-pack-struggles-to-survive-in-banff-national-park-1.4063657

The scientific journal Conservation Biology published a report in 1996 titled, “Conservation Biology and Carnivore Conservation in the Rocky Mountains”, which  documented the Mountain National Parks (Banff, Jasper, Yoho and Kootenay) to be acting as a sinkhole for wolves rather than a source. Caroline Callaghan of the Central Rockies Wolf Project completed her PhD thesis on this topic in 2002, titled The Ecology of the Gray Wolf, Canis lupus, Habitat Use, Survival and Persistence in the Central Rocky Mountains, Canada, click to download a PDF. This research documented that out of 12 packs, only 1 pack remained within a completely protected area and that although 10 out of 12 wolf packs occupied protected areas, 11 packs lost members to humans beyond park boundaries or even within protected areas, and that 5 out of 6 packs who had territories in parks lost members to auto or train collisions.

To avoid the extinction vortex often faced by small isolated populations of a species, habitats and regions must be interconnected to allow for genetic exchange and dispersal over long-distances. For wolves, whose territory requirements can be up to 3,000 square kilometers for a single pack in the Central Rocky mountains, there is no exception. Rather, by protecting the habitat requirements of wide-ranging species such as wolves, ecological integrity can be maintained throughout the functioning ecosystem. Learn more about the Extinction Debt of Protected Areas in Developing Landscapes.

Efforts to control wolves through hunting and trapping do not lead to a predictable nor consistent change in wolf populations, but these practices do fracture stable family groups (37, 43). Indeed, this is also a matter of animal welfare that must begin to be addressed in wildlife management and conservation plans.

Contemporary research suggests that a disruption of wolf social structure (through indiscriminate killing) can also influence the ecological role of wolves (37) and lead to increased conflicts with livestock and humans (42, 43).

Image and details courtesy Peter A. Dettling © - TerraMagica.: Nanuk became the breeding male of the Bow Valley pack, after his father and brother were killed in a trapline (2009) and the rest of his family dispersed. Shortly after his first mate died of natural causes, leaving their pups to starve to death, Nanuk's second mate was killed on the highway, along with several of their pups. A pack re-established itself in the Bow Valley only to be wiped out again during the summer 0f 2016 (2 adults lethally destroyed by Parks staff after getting into garbage and 4 pups killed on the railway)

Image and details courtesy Peter A. Dettling © – TerraMagica.: Nanuk, photographed above,  became the breeding male of the Bow Valley pack in Banff National Park after his father and brother were killed in a trapline (2009),  the rest of the family dispersing. Shortly after his first mate died of natural causes, leaving their pups to starve to death, Nanuk’s second mate was killed on the highway, along with several of their pups. A pack re-established itself in the Bow Valley only to be wiped out again during the summer 0f 2016 (2 adults lethally destroyed by Parks staff after getting into garbage and 4 pups killed on the railway).

One observable symptom of pack disintegration (loss of social stability regardless of population size) appears to be an increase in attack rates on livestock, (43, 44). Dr.’s Chris Darimont, Paul Paquet and Linda Rutledge are among several wolf biologists who urge that conservation of wolves and ecosystems requires managing the species at the level of the family unit. This will require maintaining not only viable populations, but also naturally-functioning populations where “fitness is likely to be optimized when evolutionary adaptation is driven by natural rather than artificial (i.e. human mediated) selection pressures” (37 and personal communication). Rutledge et al. (2010) states that the wolves’ “social component may stimulate natural regulation at other trophic levels” and is “evolutionarily important”. The stability of wolf packs may be as important to their role as a keystone species as population size, but this critical factor is not often considered in conservation-management plans for wolves in North America.  Download a PDF copy of this Buffer Zones working report (2012) that outlines the critical need for added protection of wolves in order to maintain ecological integrity, preserve intact wolf families, and uphold policy commitments.

Ontario’s Algonquin Provincial Park Buffer Zone Success Story Sets an Example for the rest of Canada

Wolf biologist Dr. Linda Rutledge has been researching eastern wolves in Ontario’s Algonquin Provincial Park since a permanent harvest ban on wolves and coyotes was implemented around the provincial park in 2001. Her findings show that:

“allowing wolves to express their natural social behaviour benefits ecosystems” (5).

The harvest ban, or buffer zones, prevent the harvest of wild canids in every township surrounding the park. It resulted after decades of research by John and Mary Theberge indicated that the wolf population in Algonquin relied on unprotected wolves outside of the park to keep the population stable. The exploited wolves had smaller territories, more dispersers, less cooperative hunting methods, and mixed family relations compared to post-ban wolves who functioned more as a family unit, shared bloodlines and died from natural causes (5).

Thanks to scientific research and public pressure, the ban was imposed and has proven to be a model for protected areas in North America, with biologists from Yellowstone as well as the Canadian Mountain National Parks recognizing the need to follow suit.

Map showing the buffer zone implemented in 2004 around Algonquin Provincial Park, which effectively banned the killing of eastern wolves and coyotes in 39 townships surrounding the park.

Map showing the buffer zone implemented in 2004 around Algonquin Provincial Park, which effectively banned the killing of eastern wolves and coyotes in 39 townships surrounding the park.

Current wolf research indicates that protection of wolf habitat beyond park boundaries is critical, as indicated by Linda Rutledge and her team in 2009:

“Legal and illegal killing of animals near park boundaries can significantly increase the threat of extirpation of populations living within ecological reserves, especially for wide-ranging large carnivores that regularly travel into unprotected areas”(5).

Since the harvest ban in townships surrounding Algonquin Provincial Park, (ie. the establishment of buffer zones), wolf density has remained relatively constant even though human-caused mortality has significantly decreased (5).

The study done by Rutledge et al. in 2009 is evidence that:

“even in a relatively large protected area, human harvesting outside park boundaries can affect evolutionarily important social patterns within protected areas. This research demonstrates the need for conservation policy to consider effects of harvesting beyond influences on population size” (5).

Dr. Rutledge pop'n chart

Chart from Dr. Rutledge’s Algonquin Park research indicating that wolf population remained stable within the park following the harvest ban implemented in December 2001. In 2004 this ban was extended to all 39 surrounding townships.

Caroline Callaghan’s research on wolves of the Central Rockies, a project shared with carnivore expert Dr. Paul Paquet.

In 2002 wolf researcher Carolyn Callaghan published her PhD thesis “The Ecology of Grey Wolf (Canis lupus) Habitat Use, Survival, and Persistence in the Central Rocky Mountains, Canada”.  Her work revealed the severe limitations the Central Rocky Mountain Parks pose upon wolves. Callaghan was also involved in the Central Rockies Wolf Project, as was renowned large carnivore biologist Paul Paquet.

“If the minimum area required to maintain a protected population exceeds the size of the protected area, then a provision to expand the protected area is prudent”, argued Landry et al. 2001 (18).

In her thesis, Callaghan reasoned;

“Alternatively, inter-jurisdictional human-use management, whereby human-caused mortality of wolves adjacent to protected reserves is reduced or eliminated, may achieve results similar to expanding the existing protected areas” (4).

Development has not stopped within the Mountain National Parks: highway construction is ongoing as the Trans-Canada is being twinned; commercial development continues within; beyond boundaries urbanization and resource extraction loom ever nearer. If wildlife responds to human disturbance by avoiding areas, it is the same effect as habitat loss or degredation (4).

Wolf researcher Carolyn Callaghan’s Central Rockies Wolf Study took place between 1987 – 2001 and covered approximately 18,670 km2 of land, where 42 wolves from 12 different packs were radio-collared (4). 11,130 km2 of land within the study area was protected, including Banff National Park, Kootenay National Park, Yoho National Park, Peter Lougheed Provincial Park, Bow Valley Provincial Park, Spray Lake Provincial Park, and the Canmore Nordic Centre.

77% of wolves collared occupied territories both inside and outside of protected areas (4).

Data from 4 Parks showed wolf preference for lower elevations and high quality prey habitat; therefore the amount of wolf habitat available is far less than the total landscape area. Mountainous habitat can impose limits to the natural resiliency of wolf populations because dispersal is compromised. Dispersal options are also limited through habitat fragmentation in and surrounding the parks.

Through her research, Callaghan identified that in her study area,

“Protected areas within the region are too small to maintain population persistence without relying on immigrants from outside of  protected reserves”.

She goes on to state:

“a co-ordinated approach to regional wolf management is recommended in order to ensure wolf population persistence” (4).

The following information has been taken directly from Carolyn Callaghan’s’ PhD thesis and Central Rockies Wolf Study…

Wolf mortalities from the Central Rockies Wolf Study were mostly human-caused. In a truncated data set,

  • Human-caused deaths = 75% total
  • 67% of these outside reserves
  • Out of 12 wolf packs that were studied, only 1 pack stayed within a completely protected area
  • 10 out of 12 packs occupied protected areas, but 11 packs lost members to humans beyond park boundaries
  • even INSIDE the protected parks, 5 out of 6 packs who had territories in parks lost members to auto or train collisions

Researcher Carolyn Callaghan stated:

“Conflicts between wolves and humans along reserve edges reduces wolf survival and contributes to the reliance on immigrants from outside Parks to maintain viable populations inside them,” (4).

1987-2000 Central Rockies Project Wolf Mortalities (out of 23 radio collared wolves):

  • Highway = 3
  • Hunting = 11
  • Trapping = 1
  • Railway = 3
  • Natural  = 5
  • Human-caused accident = 1

Top predators such as wolves are among natures most outstanding achievements.

Canada's Mountain National Parks have proven to be a sinkhole for wolves. Extra protection is required to maintain intact wolf families and ecological integrity. Canada’s Mountain National Parks have proven to be a sinkhole for wolves. Extra protection is required to maintain intact wolf families and ecological integrity.


References:

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2. Hurd, T. White, C., Pengelly, I., & Pacas, C. 2002. Humans, Wolves, Elk, Aspen and Willow (HWEAW) Research Overview. From Proceedings of Humans, Wolves, Elk, Aspen and Willow, and Now Beetles (HWEAW + B) Science Workshop, Session 1: The Current Situation in the Banff Bow Valley. Banff, Alberta.

3. Hebblewhite, M., Nietvelt, C., White, C., McKenzie, J. & Hurd, T. 2002. Wolves as a Keystone Species in Montane Ecosystems of the Canadian Rocky Mountains. Proceedings of Humans, Wolves, Elk, Aspen and Willow, and Now Beetles (HWEAW + B) Science Workshop, Session 2: Into the Future: Predation, Predation Risk, and Low Density Prey Populations. Banff, Alberta.

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