Provincial Strategy for Wolves
In March 2004, the Ministry of Natural Resources announced a suite of commitments to conserve Ontario’s two species of wolves – gray wolves (Canis lupus) and eastern wolves (Canis lycaon). These commitments included the development of a “proper wildlife management program for Ontario’s wolves” to “ensure that Ontario gets the vital scientific information it needs to protect and manage wolves.” In November 2004, MNR initiated the development of a strategy for wolf conservation, finalizing it in July 2005.
According to MNR, this new strategy will provide a framework for decision-making about wolf conservation in Ontario. It includes the goal for wolf conservation, objectives, key strategies, and a set of guiding principles. The ministry’s goal is “to ensure ecologically sustainable wolf populations and the ecosystems on which they rely for the continuous ecological, social, cultural and economic benefit of the people of Ontario.” The strategy’s 13 recommended actions are built around the concepts of legislation and policy, population assessment, habitat management, information management, harvest mortality, and non-consumptive use.
Legislation, policy and harvest mortality
Concurrent with the development of this strategy, MNR implemented one of the strategy’s recommended actions, establishing, in March 2005, a closed hunting and trapping season for wolves in the northern half of Ontario. The closed season is in effect from April 1 to September 14 of each year in 67 different wildlife management units. In July 2005, the ministry then implemented mandatory reporting requirements for hunting and trapping. In our 2004/2005 annual report, the ECO described this closed season as a positive “initial step.”
The strategy states that MNR will “determine sustainable harvest levels, and evaluate the need for an allocation system that includes all user groups (non-consumptive users, aboriginal persons, resident hunters, trappers and non-resident hunters).” The ECO cautions MNR that this objective reflects the ministry’s historical approach to wildlife management, a failed approach that predominately viewed species simply as a resource to be divided up among “users.”
Instead, a wolf conservation strategy should be focused on the survival of these species and limiting human threats to them. The ECO warns that an allocation system that would set aside X-number of wolves for consumptive purposes – for instance hunting or trapping, and Y-number of wolves for non-consumptive purposes – for nature appreciation or tourism – would not be ecologically defensible by the ministry, even though it might satisfy the goals of certain stakeholders. In our 2002/2003 annual report, the ECO wrote that “history and science have revealed that keystone species such as wolves should not be managed on the premise that they be harvested on a sustained yield basis. Wolves have evolved to fulfil an ecological niche different from that of prey species such as moose and deer, and require a different approach to their management.”
The strategy states that MNR will also “assess, monitor and report on the status and trends in wolf populations,” as well as “enhance wolf population research.” The ECO concurs with this objective and has repeatedly called for better monitoring programs for wolves. In our 2001/2002 annual report, the ECO urged the ministry to conduct a monitoring program and periodically inform the public as to its progress. In our 2002/2003 annual report, the ECO urged MNR to “make decisions based on scientific principles and data to conserve Ontario’s wolf populations.”
Habitat management and information management
Ontario’s forest management planning process does not currently require the consideration of wolf habitat. In a striking example, in 2003 Parks Canada specifically warned MNR that proposed forestry operations adjacent to Pukaskwa National Park were a direct threat to the park’s wolf population and to the ecological integrity of this protected area, but the ministry approved the forest management plan with only a minimal modification. The wolf strategy does state that MNR will now “assess the effectiveness of species and landscape management guidelines that may support the management of wolves.” Further, it also states that wolf habitat should be considered in the development of new or revised forestry guidelines.
The strategy states that MNR will “maintain and, where appropriate, increase opportunities for people to experience wolves in the wild” by promoting initiatives such as public wolf howls in provincial parks and promoting partnerships with the tourism sector. The strategy also states that the ministry will increase public awareness and understanding of wolves, their prey, and their habitat through a variety of means.
The ECO fully supports these aspects of the strategy, including the enhancement of Ontario Parks’ interpretive program. For example, Algonquin Provincial Park is worldrenowned for its wolf population, and it is reassuring that MNR is finally recognizing the value of managing this population on an ecological basis.
The ECO commends MNR for developing its Provincial Strategy for Wolves in Ontario. Indeed, the ECO has repeatedly called for the development of such a strategy. It is a dramatic shift in attitude by the ministry, but as acknowledged by MNR itself, this represents only an “initial step” in establishing a proper wildlife management program for Ontario’s wolves. There remain many unresolved and unaddressed aspects of wolf conservation. It is critical that MNR continue to monitor, assess, and study wolf populations to ensure their continued presence in Ontario.
It is unfortunate that Ontario’s wolf strategy fails to prioritize the conservation of wolves simply for their own sake. The strategy’s goal is “to ensure ecologically sustainable wolf populations and the ecosystems on which they rely for the continuous ecological, social, cultural and economic benefit of the people of Ontario.” A successful conservation strategy for a species should not attempt to be all things to all people. Its first and foremost focus, in this case, should be on the conservation of wolves. There are already a multitude of other government programs, policies, and strategies that seek to capitalize on the province’s natural resources.
In particular, MNR urgently needs to address the requirements of managing the eastern wolf as a species at risk. The eastern wolf is listed both provincially and federally as a species of special concern. Under the federal Species at Risk Act, a management plan for the eastern wolf and its habitat must be developed by 2008. Since Ontario’s eastern wolves live almost exclusively on lands regulated by the province, not federal lands, MNR likely will assume a lead role in the development of a management plan for this species. Ontario’s strategy does not address this fact. Moreover, the ECO believes that Ontario’s strategy does not constitute the management plan required by the federal Species at Risk Act.
Gray wolves and eastern wolves are keystone species in the dynamics of ecosystems, and protected areas are among the few areas where they could live relatively undisturbed. However, both species – one of which is a species at risk – are allowed to be hunted and trapped in protected areas. MNR’s wolf strategy does not address this problem. The ECO believes that allowing the hunting and trapping of these species in provincial parks is directly counter to the purpose of these protected areas. It is also in direct conflict with the stated purpose and principles of Bill 11, the proposed new legislation governing Ontario’s protected areas, that would make the “maintenance of ecological integrity” the first priority of provincial parks.(For ministry comments, see page(s) 216.)