The Science Behind Algonquin's Animals - Factors limiting population growth of wolves in Algonquin Park
  Research Projects Factors limiting population growth of wolves in Algonquin Park
   
 

 
Common Name Eastern Wolf
Scientific Name Canis lycaon
Other Names Eastern Canadian Wolf, Algonquin Wolf

General Appearance: The Eastern Wolf is a member of the dog family, like the other species of wolves found in North America. The Eastern Wolf is conspecific (belonging to the same species) with the Red Wolf (presently recognized as Canis rufus), a species that was extirpated from the wild in the southeastern United States. Although once part of the same continuum of wolves, land-clearing and direct exploitation by people following European colonization resulted in a large gap between the few remaining Red (Eastern) wolves in the southeastern United States and the larger population in central Ontario and southern Quebec. The Red Wolf is slowly being re-introduced into the wild in areas like Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge in North Carolina. Eastern Wolves (and therefore Red Wolves) are very small in size compared to the Gray Wolf (Canis lupus) living in the boreal forest north of Lake Superior in Ontario. Unlike the Gray Wolf, the Eastern Wolf in Algonquin Park has never been recorded with an all-black or all-white coat. Instead the Eastern Wolf typically has a reddish-brown muzzle; reddish-brown behind the ears and on the lower legs; with a black, white, and gray back. Most people lucky enough to catch a quick glimpse of an Eastern Wolf in the wild for the first time are surprised by the animal's small size (only about 60 to 68 centimetres at the shoulder). People from more southern areas dominated by agriculture often believe that they have seen a Coyote (Canis latrans) in Algonquin Park. Coyotes are generally absent from Algonquin Park, since wolves will regularly kill any trespasser into their territory and Coyotes have a difficult time finding food in completely forested environments. However, wildlife biologists do know that Coyotes have on occasion bred with wolves here in Algonquin Park. Although this was likely more common when the land was cleared by loggers in the late 1800s and early 1900s, some coyote genetic material continues to find its way into some Eastern Wolf packs along the Park's borders.

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Weight: Adult female and male Eastern Wolves on average weigh 25 and 30 kilograms, respectively.

Migration: Eastern Wolves are year-round residents of Algonquin Park, however, wolves do travel long distances to find food. For example, in Algonquin, a pack of wolves may occupy a territory that can be up to 500 square kilometres in size, although the average is closer to 150 square kilometres. Dr. John Theberge of the University of Waterloo, Ontario, who studied wolves in Algonquin from 1987 to 1999, found that wolves on the east side of Algonquin Park follow White-tailed Deer to deer yards located outside the protection of the Park during the winter months. Many White-tailed Deer on the Park's east side travel to the Round Lake Deer Yard near Round Lake Centre, Ontario creating a population of thousands of animals. Dr. Theberge discovered that wolves would make trips into the deer yard to kill and consume deer and then travel back to their home territories inside the protection of Algonquin Park. This travel outside the protection of the Park resulted in a large number of Dr. Theberge's wolves being killed by humans, either accidentally or intentionally.

This documentation of the killing of wolves resulted in the Ontario Minister of Natural Resources protecting wolves when they entered the three townships in which the Round Lake Deer Yard is located. This seasonal protection, granted in 1993, ensured the protection of wolves when they leave the boundaries of the Park. This protection was further extended in November of 2001 as a result of recommendations from the Algonquin Wolf Advisory Group (AWAG). Recommending a seasonal closure of harvesting of wolves in the 40 townships surrounding Algonquin Park, the Minister of Natural Resources took it one step further and imposed a year-round ban for 30 months on harvesting in the townships surrounding the Park. A permanent ban on the harvesting of wolves (and the similar looking species, the Coyote) in 40 township surrounding Algonquin Park was put in place in May 2004. Recent research has focused on assessing the impacts of this harvest ban on wolves in Algonquin and indicates that this migratory behaviour is continuing through 2007.

See a map of the wolf pack territories in Algonquin Park.

Food Sources: Wolves in Algonquin Park eat three primary prey species which include White-tailed Deer, Moose, and Beaver. Wolves prey primarily on White-tailed Deer, but both Moose and Beaver are very important secondary food sources, and may be the primary food sources at certain times of the year.

Watch a video of a wolf feeding on a Moose.

Watch a video of a wolf feeding on a deer.

How do researchers determine what wolves have been eating?

Sounds: When people think of wolf sound, most people think of wolf howling. Biologists believe that wolves use howling for a variety of functions. The single howl, or only one wolf howling, may be used to keep in contact with other members of the pack while the pack is spread out and not in visual contact. In this situation, in human terms, one wolf may be saying to the other "I'm over here. Where are you?" A pack howl containing more than one wolf is suspected to be used to defend a pack's territory from other possible intruders. In this situation, the pack is saying "This is our territory, keep out!". The final reason some biologist believe wolves may howl is for social cohesion, much like a family of humans all singing around the holiday season.

Single Wolf Howl

Wolf Pack Howl

Wolf Pack - Adults and Young

Major Predators: Adult wolves have few predators, including humans, bears, and other wolves. A recent study on pup survival showed that two of 53 wolf pups implanted with small radio-transmitters were killed by bears that entered the wolves rendezvous sites in summer.

Breeding: Mating takes place in February between the two leaders of the pack (the alpha male and alpha female). Wolf pups are born approximately 63 days later in a den which has been excavated in the ground. Generally from 4-7 pups are born per pack. The pups are nursed by the mother for the first six to eight weeks. Once weaned, they rely on other members of the pack to feed them. Initially, the adults carry food in their stomachs to the pups. The pups pull on the corners of an adult's mouth until the partially digested food is regurgitated. As the pups mature throughout the summer and early fall, they are able to eat solid food brought back by the adults.

During late July or August, when the pups have become too big for the den site, they are moved to large open areas such as a bog or Beaver meadow where the pups are left while the adult members of the pack head off hunting. During this time the pups are not yet big or strong enough to hunt with the rest of the pack. These rendezvous sites as they are known act as a playpen for the pups while the adults are away. The sites provide protection for pups, a source of water, shelter, and numerous small animals and insects hidden in the grasses that the pups pursue in efforts to hone their hunting skills.

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Research Procedures: Dr. Doug Pimlott, a past wolf researcher of the Department of Lands and Forests, conducted research in Algonquin Park from 1958 to 1965. In those days, Dr. Pimlott spend a great deal of time trying to locate wolves, especially in the spring, summer and fall, when the lack of snow and thick leaf cover prevented seeing these animals from the air. Since Pimlott's wolf research, scientific and technological advancements have made our monitoring of wolves much easier. Today, one of the most important pieces of equipment that Dr. Brent Patterson, along with research colleagues Dr. Dennis Murray, Ken Mills, and graduate student Karen Loveless use is very high frequency (VHF) radio-collars and receivers.

Despite some limitations, radio-collars allow researchers to keep tabs on wolf locations, survival, and hunting behaviour, even in remote areas like Algonquin Park. Wolves are captured for radio-collaring using foot-hold traps, live snaring, and nets fired from helicopters. Once wolves are captured, which can be hundreds of hours of field work per wolf, body measurements and blood samples are taken. Then each captured animal is fitted with a radio-collar if it is an adult or fitted with a radio implant if it is a young wolf pup. Over 200 wolves have been radio-tagged since 2002 and over 80 are now "on the air" in Algonquin Park. These animals are located weekly from an airplane using the radio telemetry receiver and antennas attached to the plane's wings. By locating wolves on a weekly basis, territory size, pack movement, survival, kill locations, den sites, and many other aspects of wolf ecology can be monitored without having to handle the wolf again.

A video of a wolf being released with a radio collar.

One type of technological advancement that is now being used in Algonquin that was not available just a few years ago is global positioning system (GPS) collars which are now attached to several animals in the Park. These collars allow researchers to collect many more "fixes" (or locations where the wolf has been) and store them in the electronics in the collar until they are remotely uploaded to a plane circling high above the collared wolf. "Technology in wildlife research is advancing at a very quick pace. Today we have radio-telemetry equipment that is smaller and lighter than ever before. This cutting edge technology is also capable of collecting things like temperature, animal activity, and even sound, as opposed to just the animal's location, all in a package not much bigger than a deck of cards" says Dr. Patterson. "The GPS collars we deployed this year are a real advance over previous technologies. Collars are presently recording one location per hour and we can download this data remotely on demand. This detailed and precise movement data is shedding much light on the specifics of migratory behaviour by Algonquin wolves and enables us to determine kill sites. These show up as clusters of locations (multiple locations in one spot resulting from wolves feeding and resting at the kill site). Since fall (2003), we have found the remains of more 250 White-tailed Deer, Moose or Beaver carcasses that the wolves were feeding on using this technology."

Learn more about GPS collar technology. (PDF Document)

View data plots from GPS collared wolf over a 24hr period.

View data plots from GPS collared wolf over a winter.

Now to some it may seem like fun just to put a collar on an animal like a wolf to just see where it goes. But biologists need to have very clearly identified research goals, since capturing, drugging, handling, and collaring animals like wolves have risks. In a good research project, these risks must be minimized and the benefits of the research should out weigh these risk.

Fly with a researcher in search of collared animals

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Research Habitat: Eastern Wolves are found throughout most of central Ontario and as far east as southern Quebec, as far north and West as Lake Nipigon, and as far south as the southern edge of the Canadian Shield in central Ontario. Algonquin Provincial Park is the largest protected area within the range of the Eastern Wolf. See map below.

View a map of the range of the Eastern Wolf

Wolves in Algonquin Park use all major habitat types, especially deciduous and coniferous forest, Beaver ponds, and spruce bogs.

Learn more about Algonquin Park's five major habitats.

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Research Questions

How important are harvesting (hunting and trapping), disease, and prey availability in limiting the population growth of wolves in Algonquin Park?

To assess this question Dr. Patterson and colleagues placed radio-collars (or radio ear-tags or implant transmitters for some pups) on 208 different wolves, including 78 pups, between August 2002 and February 2007. During winter they estimated wolf densities separately in the eastern and western portions of the Park based on differences in wolf behaviour as well as forest cover and topography. For example, in winter 2003, five of six packs monitored in eastern Algonquin made repeated forays to deer yards outside the Park. In contrast, only one of 10 packs within our census area in western Algonquin made excursions outside of their territory (and the Park) during the same winter. Dr. Patterson and colleagues monitored 16 packs in and around Algonquin Park during winter 2003, and approximately 25 during winters 2004-2007.

Our density estimates for both eastern (~2.9 wolves/100 square kilometres) and western Algonquin (2.3-2.5 wolves/100 square kilometres) have remained relatively stable since 2002, and are comparable to those estimated by researchers Graham Forbes and John Theberge during winters 1988-92 but higher than estimated during by the Theberges' and their graduate students during 1993-99. Similar to our findings, higher wolf densities were observed in eastern Algonquin during the late 1980s and early 90s, probably due to greater abundance of White-tailed Deer and Beaver.

What are wolf survival rates in Algonquin Park?

Our first collared wolf entered the study on August 8, 2002. Fifty-one radio-collared yearling or adult wolves died through to the end of February 2007, and the deaths of 40 of those animals were attributable to natural causes (includes falling through ice, strife among packs, malnutrition, mange, wounds inflicted by White-tailed Deer or Moose). Of the 11 killed by people most were hit by vehicles but 2 were killed in snares (both outside of Algonquin during winter).

Dr. Patterson and colleagues consider survival and dispersal on the basis of the "wolf-year", which runs from May 1 through April 30. Depending on the fate of an adult female that went missing in March 2003, annual survival for yearling and adult wolves during the first year of our study was 91-94%. During the next three winters estimated annual survival for yearling and adult wolves was 79-84%, depending on the assumptions around missing wolves. Despite the increase in natural mortality after the first year of the ban, survival rates of yearling and adult wolves during our study have been relatively high for free-ranging wolves. To put this in context, during 1988-99 survival of yearling and adult wolves in eastern Algonquin (there is insufficient data from western Algonquin) averaged ~67% although small sample sizes resulted in high annual variation in this estimate. Another important consideration is that, at least for wolves in eastern Algonquin, there has been a major shift in the primary causes of death for wolves. Approximately 2/3 (~66%) of known mortalities of wolves during the Theberges' study (1988-99) died of human related causes, whereas over 80% of documented wolf mortalities during our study have been due to natural causes.

Do wolf packs change size? And why are pack sizes relatively small in Algonquin?

Pack sizes change from one year to the next through recruitment of new pups, mortality or dispersal of existing members, and immigration of new wolves from other areas. Some researchers have suggested that changes in pack size provide a good indicator of changes in overall wolf density. Given the observed high rates of adult survival, the researchers expected a noticeable increase in pack sizes and, by extension, density following the implementation of the harvest ban. However, during early winters 2002-06 median pack size was 4.5, 4.5, 5, 4.75, and 5 in western Algonquin, and 4.5, 4.5, 5, and 5 (2003-06) in eastern Algonquin, respectively. Overall, pack sizes observed during 2002-06 were similar to those observed during 1990-96, but larger than observed in eastern Algonquin during the late 1990s.

Dr. Pimlott who conducted wolf research in Algonquin Park during the 1958-1963, found that the average wolf pack size at the end of the winter numbered between five and seven wolves. When pups are born in the month of May, pack size grows by an average of four.

Many researchers believe that wolf pack size in Algonquin Park is smaller than other species of wolves because of the type of prey that is consumed. Since White-tailed Deer are a very important food sources for wolves in Algonquin Park, pack size is regulated by the amount of food that is available when prey is killed. Therefore, a small animal like a White-tailed Deer can only support a pack of five to seven Eastern Wolves. Gray Wolves have a much larger pack size because they prey on much larger animals such as Caribou and Musk Ox.

What role does pup survival, recruitment and dispersal play in Algonquin's wolf population?

Whereas some packs seemed to successfully recruit 2-4 pups into their ranks in winters 2003-06, others declined in size from one winter to the next despite relatively high adult survival and confirmed presence of pups with the packs during the previous summer. For example, four of the eight packs monitored in late summer and fall 2002 that were known to have produced pups lacked pups by winter 2003. Gaining further understanding of the seemingly low pup recruitment (whether due to poor survival or high and early dispersal) was a high priority for our research program, and was the focus of Ken Mills' Master of Science (MSc) thesis. Analyses of 78 wolf pups captured from 2002-2006 indicate that pup survival during the summer and fall is relatively high (~75%) for litters born within the Park. Through the end of November a similar proportion of pups dispersed from their packs as had died by that point in the year. The combined effects of mortality and dispersal left an average of 2.2 pups with each pack by the start of winter.

View a video of wolf pup research being conducted.

Although most wolves will eventually disperse from their natal packs provided they live long enough, it is rare for wolves younger than 8 months old to disperse (most disperse at 22-24 months). Yet Ken Mills documented pups dispersing as young as 3.5 months old, the earliest record for any wolf population. The fates of these dispersing pups and the mechanisms behind this early dispersal are generally unknown and require more research. During the first year of monitoring a minimum of 3, and maximum of 4, of the 40 pack-living yearling and adult wolves dispersed from the packs they were in when Dr. Patterson and colleagues began monitoring. During 2003-04, 12-14 yearling or older wolves dispersed from the packs they started the year in (fates of two were uncertain). Based on these numbers, actual dispersal rates during the first two years of our study were 10-12 and 24-28% respectively. During 2004-06, between 12-15 yearling and adult wolves dispersed each year resulting in an estimated dispersal rate of 22-27%. Overall, recent dispersal rates of yearling and adult wolves are relatively high, but similar rates have been observed in other areas. Overall, our data suggests that the observed stability of pack sizes occurs because annual pup recruitment is approximately equal to the annual loss of yearling and adult wolves from the population through the combination of mortality and dispersal (~45%).

So in summary, what have you concluded about wolves in Algonquin Park?

Dr. Patterson and colleagues documented an increase in annual survival rates of yearling and adult wolves in Algonquin Park following a ban on all hunting and trapping of wolves in the 40 townships surrounding the Park. However, increased survival has not resulted in a detectable increase in either pack size or overall population density. This appears to be due to high rates of dispersal by both juvenile and adult pack members. That relatively high survival is apparently being offset by high dispersal with little overall change in wolf density suggests wolf densities may presently be "self-regulated" at a level suitable for the present abundance of prey (Moose, White-tailed Deer, Beaver) available to wolves in the Park. The idea that the wolf "population" in Algonquin (as a whole) was at risk of extinction because of human-caused mortality outside the Park assumed that wolves from western Algonquin were leaving the Park during winter, and being killed, at a similar rate as observed in the eastern half of the Park during the 1990s. Preliminary findings suggest that most packs in western Algonquin remain within their territories, and the Park, year round. This suggests that wolves in the west side of the Park may never have been subject to the same level of human caused mortality as "east side" wolves. Findings of considerable immigration into the Park based on genetic studies and the common emigration of collared wolves from the Park suggest that it is inappropriate to consider wolves in the Park (moreover a particular section of the Park) as a discrete biological population. Although intense harvesting in some years may have severely depressed wolf numbers in eastern Algonquin it seems unlikely that complete extirpation of wolves in this area was ever a possibility. Moreover, immigration from western Algonquin, and surrounding areas, would facilitate re-colonization of vacant territories within a few years.

Overall then, our preliminary conclusion is that although the harvest ban does not seem necessary for wolf persistence in Algonquin, the marked shift in dominant mortality sources for wolves (from human-caused to natural), and apparent natural regulation of wolf numbers presently occurring, indicates that the ban has played a positive role in promoting a naturally functioning wolf-prey system within the Park.



Suggested Reading
Educators: Learn more about Algonquin’s habitats, download readings and worksheets from the Educator Resources section of the Web Site, or you may also learn more through the following publications:

Mammals of Algonquin Provincial Park
Fifty-three species of mammals have been found in Algonquin Provincial Park. This book explains the life history of these mammals. The many illustrations help to make it easier to identify them, and the book also contains a useful reference chart for distinguishing tracks and scats.


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The Raven Talks About Wolves
This book contains sixteen articles about wolves that originally appeared in Algonquin Park's popular newsletter, The Raven, between its inception in 1960 and 2001.


more info



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