Productive collaboration among state wildlife representatives, scientists, conservation organizations and citizen constituents help mutual parties find common ground about wolf recovery in the Northeast U.S.A.
In June 2016, status assessments by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) and by the Committee on the Status of Species at Risk in Ontario (COSSARO) resulted in a reclassification of and name change for the eastern wolf. Ontario’s remnant eastern wolves are now called “Algonquin wolves.” Moreover, the wolves are now listed as “threatened” under the province’s Endangered Species Act (ESA), granting the species an extra degree of protection from its previous listing of “special concern” issued in 2008. Under the ESA, all threatened and endangered species and their habitat are automatically protected. The Ontario Species at Risk Evaluation Report also recognized this species as having a restricted total population, with Algonquin Park and surrounding townships, serving as the stronghold for this species.
In recognition of this development, the conservation community in the United States, especially those in the Northeast USA, has become increasingly aware of the potential for the recolonization of this species in the region. By mutually focusing on the species as well as ecosystems, there is potential to explore the natural recovery of this top predator and its benefits to the changing ecosystems that depend on top-down regulation.
The Wolf Conservation Center (WCC) strives to ensure that the foundation of its vision and work is based on the application of the most current genomic studies and scientific principles. In doing so, the Center partners with government agencies, the scientific community, other conservation organizations, and the general public to achieve this mission. Maggie Howell, Executive Director of the WCC states, “Constituents in the Northeast region of the United States have been engaged in the biological and social aspects of wolves for some time, although since the 1990s, this has largely been informal discussions among colleagues.“
Recognizing the need for a collaborative effort that explores the vision of and potential for the return of the eastern wolf in North America as part of the public trust, the WCC held a two day Eastern Wolf Education Summit [June 13th – June 14th, 2016] so that all interested constituents had the opportunity to learn more about and explore three essential themes and how they may impact our region in Northeast USA. Speakers included Linda Rutledge (Princeton University, Ecology and Evolutionary Biology), Brent Patterson (Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources), John F. Benson (University of California, Los Angeles), and Adrian Treves, (University of Wisconsin-Madison, Carnivore Coexistence Lab).
“Although there are no viable wolf populations in our region at this time, the return of wolves to eastern ecosystems remains of critical importance, and addressing the taxonomic questions about wolves remains an essential step in any development of public policy,” explained Howell. “Today, we’re on what many consider to be the front-line of wolf taxonomy, a messy topic for sure, but clarity is slowly emerging after lengthy and ongoing scientific debate.”
Disagreement about the evolutionary origins of Eastern wolves, sometimes considered to be a hybrid of gray wolves and coyotes, has been most recently addressed with genomic research published in Biology Letters in July 2015. The paper, “RAD sequencing and genomic simulations resolve hybrid origins within North American Canis,” by L. Y. Rutledge, S. Devillard, J. Q. Boone, P. A. Hohenlohe, B. N. White provides further supports the unique species designation first proposed for Eastern wolves in 2000. It also helps to clarify the hybrid origins of other wild canids, including Eastern coyotes and Great Lakes wolves. Linda Rutledge’s presentation, “Fossils to Genomes: The evolution of Canis Evolution” emphasized that under current species concept models within species-at-risk policy framework in Canada, establishing the evolutionary history of the eastern wolf as a species and not a hybrid, will lead to better protection. “The eastern wolf needs a recovery plan that extends into dispersal areas, including Quebec,” says Rutledge. “There is wonderful habitat for them to disperse into; there just needs to be protection so they are not killed as soon as they disperse out of the [Algonquin Provincial Park] buffer zone.”
Arguments about wolf management and conservation can quickly descend into trying to reconstruct the past. What wolf really belongs in the East? Did gray wolves and eastern wolves live concurrently, feeding on different prey? Are Canadian gray wolves the same as Rocky Mountain wolves? Despite her focus on the evolution of wild canines in North America, Rutledge proposes another way for conservationists to approach this: focus on the ecosystem not the species.
“Conservation focuses on a very species-specific model,” she says. “Agencies often want to know first whether a species is taxonomically valid, but that may not be an efficient way to approach conservation in general. Our research shows that what species are can be very difficult to pin down. We know that ecosystems need top predators,” she continues. “That is so clear in the case of highly-abundant white-tailed deer in eastern forests. The eastern wolf could regulate deer abundance, if it could disperse. In other words: Let’s quit trying to make wolves fit into our neat little taxonomic boxes. Let’s focus instead on how to protect and restore their critical role as top predators.”
It is widely recognized that protected areas can strongly influence ecological systems and that hybridization is an important conservation issue. Before the research project initiated in Algonquin Park after 2004, studies had not explicitly considered the influence of protected areas on hybridization dynamics. The distribution of Eastern wolves is largely restricted to a protected population in Algonquin Provincial Park (APP), Ontario, Canada, where they are the numerically dominant canid. Brent Patterson and then-PhD candidate John Benson studied intrinsic and extrinsic factors influencing survival and cause-specific mortality of hybrid and parental canids in the three-species hybrid zone between eastern wolves, eastern coyotes, and gray wolves in and adjacent to APP. Their results demonstrated that protected areas can exert a powerful inﬂuence on hybridization dynamics between species and suggest that rare hybridizing taxa are able to maintain genetic distinctiveness within protected areas, even when reproductive barriers are few, and hybrids and other parental types are more abundant, outside the reserve. Thus, efforts to maintain or restore naturally regulated systems by protecting rare, hybridizing species from exploitation can help to address the challenge of conserving hybridizing species. Although large protected areas similar to APP may be difﬁcult to establish in many human-altered landscapes, their results highlight the importance of existing parks and reserves with respect to their potential to inﬂuence the structure of hybrid zones involving rare species, such as eastern wolves.
According to John Benson, “It is pretty clear that eastern wolves would not have persisted in Ontario without Algonquin park. The park has provided protection from human-caused mortality and an area of suitable habitat within which eastern wolves have minimized hybridization with coyotes and other canids relative to adjacent areas. Within Algonquin, eastern wolves remain the numerically dominant canid, whereas coyotes are extremely rare. However, in areas outside Algonquin and the protected buffer zone, human-caused mortality is high, hybridization with coyotes and other canids is common, and eastern wolves are rare and patchily distributed.”
The eastern wolf’s evolutionary history inspires transboundary partnerships and collaborative strategies which will encourage the exploration of a recovery plan that protects and restores the critical role of the eastern wolf as a top predator. Eastern wolf conservation could provide a fundamental, cost-effective approach to reduce herbivory, conserve ecosystems and improve biodiversity in the troubled landscapes of eastern North America.
During the Summit, common ground was explored to encourage the hard work of conserving the eastern wolf. Consensus was reached with the overall belief that policy makers, wildlife managers, scientists and conservationists must work together to encourage transboundary partnerships that mutually support communication and education initiatives as they relate to eastern wolf conservation.
The concept of the public trust doctrine implies that we all share equal, undivided interests in our natural resources – which include wildlife. In fact, the government holds wildlife in trust for our benefit and is empowered to manage it for the public good. Public trust wildlife management should aim for state wildlife management reflective of democracy, broad public participation and science-based decision making. It also enacts research/investigations, public education and other initiatives to achieve its mission.
Endangered wildlife may benefit from this strategy. “The public trust doctrine is already being invoked, implicitly and explicitly, in cases related to protecting wolverines in the West and wolves in the upper Midwest,” said Adrian Treves, an associate professor at the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. While the government has long shown a public trust role in managing wildlife—think bag limits and hunting seasons—it has been inconsistent about which animals it protects. For example, while many state agencies guard assets they deem valuable, such as elk, they have frequently ignored or deferred responsibility for the welfare of less popular species like prairie dogs. “Those wildlife assets are just as much of the public trust as the ungulates,” says Treves. “I expect to see more and more use of the public trust in litigation.”
The public trust doctrine obligates states to conserve a species for their citizens when federal statutory law does not protect it because certain natural resources, including wildlife, belong to all citizens, and therefore deserve such protection. Recognizing that the state has a common-law obligation to maintain wildlife populations in perpetuity, not just for current residents but for future residents, provides a degree of protection for species in the absence of statutory protection.
“Under Ontario’s ESA, the automatic protection now afforded to the animals cannot be enforced unless the provincial government commits to ban hunting and trapping of both wolves and coyotes across the entire range of these at-risk animals. Government agencies must extend the concept of conservation in trust for every citizen beyond this species-at-risk, and include the eastern coyotes so similar in appearance,” remarks Hannah Barron of Canadian conservation organizations Earthroots and Wolf Awareness Inc. “Historically, hunters and trappers held decision-makers accountable for managing wildlife based largely on maximum sustainable yield theory. The higher risk status eastern wolves are now protected under provides us with an opportunity to reshape our canid conservation objectives north of the border and change regulations to satisfy a wider audience. We are all stakeholders when it comes to conservation, we all benefit when predator-prey relationships are intact.”
As a result of collaboration and debate, more than 60 attendees strived to reach as much consensus as possible about the big ideas about eastern wolf recovery and identified a preliminary framework from which all constituents can begin to work together to transfer scientific data into informed practice. Furthermore, participants agreed that although eastern wolf conservation outside of APP is an important conservation goal, wolf recovery in the Northeast USA should not be limited to eastern wolves. A wolf conservation strategy should be broad enough to include all wolves, including gray wolves (Canis lupus) who currently call the western great lake states home. These wolves could potentially recolonize the Northeast from places like Quebec and may offer the advantages of being easier to distinguish from coyotes and less likely to hybridize with them as well.
Productive collaboration among state wildlife representatives, scientists, conservation organizations and citizen constituents is rewarding when mutual parties strive for common ground and achieve that lofty goal. The WCC’s Eastern Wolf Summit was a huge success and, as a result, an exciting new chapter for wolves in the Northeast North America begins.