By Duane Hicks
The Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry received four reports of wolves from the public in December, noted Adriana Pacitto, MNRF assistant regional outreach specialist. Information from the deer and moose hunter postcard survey suggests wolf numbers in several Wildlife Management Units in Fort Frances District have increased, she said.
The number of wolves seen by hunters has been trending upwards over the past few years, Pacitto added. Every year, hunters are mailed postcards and asked to provide information about wildlife they’ve observed on the landscape, including wolf sightings. “We do not differentiate between wolves/coyotes in our hunter surveys, or in the hunting regulations, as many in the public find it challenging to consistently make that determination,” said Pacitto. “These numbers are tracked over time and are our main source of information on the area’s wolf population,” she explained. “We can further determine wolf population trends by tracking wolf sightings and wolf activity observed during aerial moose surveys.”
Based on hunter observations, Pacitto said wolf densities today are trending higher compared to five years ago in most parts of the Fort Frances area. “We anticipate that with the deer herd in decline, the wolf population numbers would follow this trend,” she added.
Factors including winter severity, prey availability, hunting, and trapping all can have an impact on the wolf population and wolf mortality, noted Pacitto. Wolf distribution and abundance typically ebbs and flows relative to that of their primary cervid prey, namely moose and white-tailed deer.
The MNRF anticipates the wolf population will reach a sustainable level relative to environmental conditions and food availability. “Fort Frances is located within a portion of Ontario that has extremely good deer habitat,” Pacitto said. “Mild winters in previous years have seen the deer population expand.”
Pacitto said the MNRF has initiated management strategies to try to manage the expansion, such as additional deer seals for resident hunters. “The town [Fort Frances] introduced a bylaw prohibiting the feeding of deer several years ago,” she added. “The situation is deer have predators, and if we have deer in town, predators may follow.”
Wolves across Ontario rely on a source of cervid prey (i.e., moose, deer, elk, and caribou) to survive.
The distribution and abundance of their prey influences both wolf numbers and where they may be found.
Other variables, such as winter severity, influence wolf movements. “With the past winter being quite severe, wolves across much of Northwestern Ontario will have experienced very difficult conditions in which to travel and search for prey,” noted Pacitto. “Under such circumstances, wolves that typically avoid areas inhabited by humans may risk hunting for prey in such locales,” she said. “Deer, moose, or even pets such as dogs that are located in suburban areas can become the focus of their search for food. Roads cleared of snow can facilitate wolf travel to and from human inhabited areas, especially during winters with deep snow,” added Pacitto.
Wolves or coyotes?
The Fort Frances area predominately has gray wolves and some coyotes. The best way to distinguish a coyote from a wolf at a glance is the ears. Wolves’ ears tend to be smaller (in relation to the size of the head) and spaced farther apart on the head. Coyotes’ ears, on the other hand, tend to be larger, closer together, and stand straight on the top of their head. The largest pure-blood coyotes are about 30 pounds lighter than the smallest wolves.
Coyotes typically don’t tend to live in social groups as wolves do. By late summer of their first year, a coyote will be ready to care for itself and leave its parents, whereas wolf offspring usually mature within the pack and become part of it. Lastly, coyotes are recognized as being more adaptable to human contact and activity, so in many cases they have filled the niche where wolves once served (i.e., disrupted or pushed out by human activities).
Therefore, it is more common for the general public to observe coyotes than wolves.
The Town of Fort Frances has received very few complaints about wolf sightings this winter from the public.
If a public safety issue is identified within town limits, bylaw officers will contact the OPP.
The town will investigate reports of animal carcasses, and when one is discovered, town staff will dispose of it.
If a wolf is within the municipality and poses an immediate threat to public safety, residents should call 9-1-1 or the local police. “Wild animals have the same basic needs as humans—food, water, and shelter,” noted Pacitto. “Sometimes, humans and wild creatures come into conflict when animals are trying to meet their basic needs,” she said. “Often, conflicts can be prevented if we’re willing to make small changes to how we think and act.”
The best prevention is to:
•remove attractants such as food
•clean up after your dog (coyotes are attracted to dog feces);
•spay and neuter your dogs (coyotes are attracted to, and can mate with, domestic dogs that have not been spayed or neutered); and
•keep dogs inside at night.
Wolves can be encountered, on occasion, when hiking through the boreal forest. If you encounter a wolf, you should watch the animal and observe its behaviour. Most often, wolves will move away from people. If approached, stand tall, make yourself look as tall as possible, and make lot of noise. Do not turn your back on the wolf or try to run from it. Although wolves often travel in packs, packs can become somewhat less structured from spring to fall.
Shifts in prey type and abundance, pup rearing activities, and dispersal of sub-adults can influence wolf travel patterns and behaviour during that time period. Wolves can hunt effectively as individuals, especially on smaller sources of prey like beaver, during ice-free periods. “Wolves are an important component of Ontario’s biodiversity and regardless of whether one or several are observed, they—as other wildlife—should be treated with respect and viewed from an appropriate distance,” noted Pacitto.
Farmers and landowners do have the ability to protect their livestock and property. If a person believes that wildlife is damaging, or is about to damage, their property, the person may, on their own land, capture, kill, or harass problem wolves to prevent damage to their property, said Pacitto.
They, or an agent such as a trapper, can capture, kill, or harass problem wolves to prevent damage to their property, but lethal action should be considered a last resort, she added.