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Ontario should stop scapegoating wolves

Toronto Star,
Rachel Plotkin and Anne Bell,
February 23 2016

A canine predator that travels in packs in remote areas of North America is called a wolf. Most people know this, yet by all accounts the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry (MNRF) seems to think it’s a goat – a scapegoat.

A plan to weaken regulations for hunting wolves and coyotes in Northern Ontario treats these predators as scapegoats, with the MNRF claiming the changes will help reduce declines in the moose population. Yet moose, wolves and coyotes have lived together in complex predator-prey relationships for thousands of years. The ministry itself notes, “Predation rates on moose by wolves tend to increase in tandem with moose numbers. This naturally regulates the density of the moose population and is ultimately beneficial to moose and the ecosystems they rely on.”

Wolves and other predators occupy an important niche in nature. Science is clear that our zest for killing such animals has resulted in significant unintended consequences and ecosystem damage. For example, removing predators can cause deer populations to increase, leading to changes in natural vegetation patterns and increased disease transmission.

A recent report by the Raincoast Conservation Foundation describes humans as “super-predators” and cautions that “although grizzlies, wolves, and cougars occasionally kill one another, it’s rare. They have not evolved as prey. More enlightened wildlife management would recognize that this reality can make carnivore hunting risky business.”

The MNRF claims the new proposal will have neutral results, yet it may well harm a species at risk, the eastern wolf. The proposed changes would apply to an area abutting Algonquin Park and adjacent townships where, to protect the eastern wolf, hunting wolves and coyotes is not permitted. By all accounts, eastern wolves and coyotes are difficult if not impossible to distinguish in the field. In effect, it would be open season on eastern wolves when they venture outside the protected zone.

Most appalling is the fact that scientists, including scientists on the ministry’s own team, agree that wolf and coyote control is not a long-term solution to address declines in prey populations.

MNRF background information states that removing just a few wolves from each pack will not decrease overall predation on moose and that only wiping out wolf packs in their entirety will achieve this. (Pack eradication is most often done by aerial killing or poisoning – thankfully these options aren’t on the table.)

There are many uncertainties around the causes of recent moose declines. Climate change might be playing a role, as might disease (often exacerbated by climate change). One thing is clear, though: hunting by humans is having the most significant impact on moose populations, with ever more moose being killed as hunting-related technology improves.

Citizens throughout Ontario are left wondering what is going on. Why is a ministry responsible for protecting Ontario’s rich biodiversity putting wildlife at risk? Why is a province that advocates tolerance and diversity fanning the age-old flames of intolerance against predators, and advancing harm to the native biodiversity of Ontario?

This regulation has not yet been passed. There’s still time for the province to abandon the proposal and base its policy and approaches to wildlife management on science. If the MNRF wants to please hunters by making it easier for them to kill predators, with less oversight, it should be clear that this is the motivation for the proposed regulation. To suggest that it is to help moose populations is simply senseless.

Rachel Plotkin is the Ontario Science Projects Manager at the David Suzuki Foundation. Anne Bell is the Director of Conservation and Education at Ontario Nature.