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Citizen scientists, are you up for a good howl?

There seem to be many wolves, coyotes and hybrids out there on the back roads but what are you really seeing? Bill went looking for answers and you can become part of the solution

Depending on where you live in Ontario-Northern Ontario you may not know what you are seeing? Take a close at the attached photos and rely on your “muscle memory.”

You’ve heard all these names before, “That was a coyote.” Brush wolf. Little wolf. Coydog or urban coyote. Timber wolf. Grey wolf. Boreal wolf or Great Lakes boreal wolf. Algonquin wolf or eastern wolf. And if you find yourself asking, “Was that a wolf?

The answer is complex, verging on confusing for good reasons. We know about the predator-prey relationship in nature but when humans become involved there is a great deal of polarization regarding how wolves are viewed. This article is not about how we feel about wolves but about identification, add your comments at the end of this story.

In this “Wolf 101-ID,” what are we really looking at? There is much to learn.

Ontario is the home to two unique wolf species, the grey wolf and the eastern (Algonquin Wolf), along with coyotes and hybrids.

The eastern wolf (Canis lupus lycaon or Canis lycaon) now known as the Algonquin wolf is a type of wolf native to the Great Lakes region and southeastern Canada, considered to be either a unique subspecies of grey wolf or a separate species from the grey wolf.

The wolf (Canis lupus), also known as grey wolf, is a large canine native to Eurasia and North America. More than thirty subspecies of Canis lupus have been recognized, and grey wolves, as colloquially understood, comprise non-domestic and feral subspecies.

Eastern wolves and eastern coyotes most often are physically indistinguishable – you can’t tell them apart without a genetic test.

The wolf is nonetheless related closely enough to smaller Canis species, such as the coyote and has the ability to produce fertile hybrids with them. Hybridization or “admixing” is a biological process it is the intermixing of two distinct yet closely related classification or taxonomy which may deeply affect the genetic make-up, long-term survival and evolution of the species.

The provincial conservation goal for wolves in Ontario 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.” And in part, some of the uncertainty centres on one of the guiding challenges: “Difficulty in estimating the number and distribution of the different species of wolves at various geographical scales.”

Earthroots is a grassroots conservation organization dedicated to the protection of Ontario’s wilderness, wildlife and watersheds, through research, education and advocacy.

It launched the Ontario Wolf Survey project in 2016 to help fill in gaps in the provincial survey effort. It collects DNA from large canids (coyotes/wolves) non-invasively, through scat collection (feces), urine (frozen in snow) and hair. Samples are delivered to Trent University to be profiled to species (eastern wolf, eastern coyote, grey wolf or admixed individual). DNA also indicates sex (female/male) and can be used to create family trees, determining relatedness between individuals.

Hannah Barron is the Director-Wildlife Conservation at Earthroots and explained, “admixing.” 

“This means an animal that isn't highly assigned (i.e. minimum 80 per cent inferred ancestry) to any one of the possible Ontario canid species or types, which are: grey wolf (Canis lupus), Great Lakes Boreal (GLB) wolf (Canis lupus x lycaon), Algonquin (eastern) wolf (Canis lycaon), eastern coyote (Canis latrans var lycaon), or dog (Canis lupus familiarise).

"An admixed animal has DNA from at least two of these groups, but maybe more.

"So for example, an animal with half Algonquin wolf ancestry half GLB wolf ancestry would be considered admixed. An animal with 75 per cent Algonquin wolf ancestry, 20 per cent eastern coyote ancestry and 5 per cent dog ancestry would also be called admixed. An animal that is 40 per cent eastern coyote, 30 per cent eastern wolf and 30 per cent GLB wolf is also admixed, there are endless possibilities!

“We use DNA for ID, though weight is a reasonable indicator. Algonquin wolves, admixed animals and eastern coyotes can look really similar. I don't think there are any full black Algonquin wolves or eastern coyotes, so those would be admixed or GLB wolves.

"That's not super helpful as most canids are some combination of brown, seal grey, white, black and roan. Wolf snouts are boxy, coyote snouts are usually narrower. Wolves are generally heavier and taller.

"There's considerable overlap depending on age (a young Algonquin wolf versus an adult coyote, say) and genetics.”

We don't actually know what the wolf populations are in Ontario.

It's hard to count wolves, especially over big areas, so Ontario uses indices instead: supplementing research in small targeted areas where they do surveys, and the number of wolves seen per hunting day by hunters (reported in the mandatory questionnaires) are reported.

Hannah said, “The grey wolf population seems secure. Eastern/Algonquin wolf population is listed as ‘Threatened,’ and with about 250-1000 in Ontario, but we really don't know.

"Evidence suggests that they are patchily distributed. That data comes from DNA which is used to differentiate eastern wolves from other large canids that they look like.

“At Earthroots I also directly participate in the workshops that are held for the development of the recovery strategy (required by law for Threatened species) - we are the lead environmental organization involved in this process.

"I also inform the public about commenting periods related to wolves, for example, the draft strategy that is up now. The final Recovery Strategy was delayed in 2018 and still hasn’t been published. We’re using this time to compile more data to make it stronger. It is supposed to be based purely on science.”

She said there are some major knowledge gaps.

“We don't know how many eastern wolves there are, and where they are located. Additionally, we need to determine how to eliminate threats despite opposition from the people that kill them.

"The primary threat to eastern wolves is hunting and trapping, as well as hybridization with admixed animals and eastern coyotes which seem to be the most numerous canids in their shared landscape.

"Closing down hunting and trapping eliminates most human-caused mortality of course, but also affects the hybridization dynamics - it has the added benefit of reducing hybridization with eastern coyotes, probably because if there are more eastern wolves surviving, and they prefer to mate with other eastern wolves, then they have a higher chance of finding each other rather than coyotes and breeding with them instead.

"However, hunters and trappers are opposed to closures for wolves, not only because they want to be able to kill them but also because the closures also prevent killing of eastern coyotes."

One final thing, complicating all of this is the time of year when you spot a wolf.

Fur reaches its prime or thickness, a trapper/fur harvester would say, as the “underfur” (similar to down feathers on a bird) which is used to insulate the animal during the winter months.

This dense underfur is protected by long “guard hairs.” Fur reaches its peak prime when the underfur is at its thickest and the guard hairs are at the longest they will be throughout the year.

During the summer and shoulder months, the animals look much leaner, almost mangy and identification from a distance becomes a best guess and the names from the second paragraph come into play.

Maybe become a citizen scientist? There is an overview of the Earthroots citizen science kit through this Vimeo link.

You can also record your observations at iNaturalist, part of the province’s Natural Heritage Information Centre (NHIC), Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry (MNRF). Keep your eyes peeled.


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Bill Steer

About the Author: Bill Steer

Back Roads Bill Steer is an avid outdoorsman and is founder of the Canadian Ecology Centre
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