Friday, October 23, 2015

Packs of Gatineau Park: Not quite wolves, not quite coyotes

Tom Spears, Ottawa Citizen
Eastern coyote was captured and collared by the National Capital Commission. National Capital Commission / Ottawa Citizen


The big predators in Gatineau Park have no name. But there are six small packs of them, watching you even when you can’t see them, and traversing great distances in West Quebec.
But the new census of these packs — the first ever — leaves a tricky question: What do we call them?
Wolves? Coyotes? “Coywolf” hybrids? All of the above, probably, as National Capital Commission experts who surveyed the park found a “canid soup” that mixes the genes of wolves and coyotes. (Canids are wolves, dogs and their relatives.)
This is the first real census of wolves and coyotes in the park, conducted with traps, cameras, trackers and DNA analysis.

Image from the study of wolves and coyotes in in Gatineau Park.
Image from the study of wolves and coyotes in Gatineau Park. National Capital Commission / Ottawa Citizen
“In general there were potentially six groups in all,” said Christie Spence, the National Capital Commission’s senior manager of natural resources and land management. “Maybe three packs with 15 individuals (in total) of the larger animal, and another three packs of coyotes,” with 10 to 12 individuals in all. Each group ranged from a pair to seven animals.
“That was more than I was expecting,” she said. While the number surprised her, “it doesn’t surprise me as much if you think of them all just using one portion of it, or (living there) just during one time of year.
“This kind of animal has learned to be very wary of people, so I think they see us a lot more than we see them,” she said.
But exactly which species they are remains complex.

Image from the study of wolves and coyotes in in Gatineau Park.
Image from the study of wolves and coyotes in Gatineau Park. National Capital Commission / Ottawa Citizen
Most of Canada has grey wolves, alias timber wolves. But there’s a slightly smaller type native around here called the Eastern wolf. It was once common both here and in the Eastern United States, but today lives mostly around Algonquin Park.
And as Eastern wolves fared poorly during the European settlement, they sometimes bred with coyotes, so that the distinction is now blurred.

Image from the study of wolves and coyotes in in Gatineau Park.
Image from the study of wolves and coyotes in Gatineau Park. National Capital Commission / Ottawa Citizen
The NCC study found a 72-pound male whose genes were mostly coyote, even though it was far bigger than coyotes are supposed to be. Its mate weighed only 42 pounds, which is more typical for the species. The big male also had some grey wolf genes.
The Gatineau wolves travel long distances.
One collared male, probably a young one, left its pack and followed Highway 148 to farmland near Shawville where it was shot and killed. Another young male with a collar also headed out on its own, travelling west and then north. It’s still active somewhere near Gracefield.

But two others with collars stayed closer to home. They turned out to be a mated pair.
“They had a more tightly defined territory,” Spence said. “They probably spent more than half of their time outside the park, south of the park in the Pontiac region. They went to the (Ottawa) River quite a lot. This was an interesting confirmation of our hypothesis that some of these ecological corridors that connect the park down to the river would be important.”
“They had a den, and that was also outside the park.”
So, do they get protection? Eastern wolves are officially endangered.
“I guess they do when they are in the park,” Spence said. “That’s been part of the thinking in conservation biology for a long time: that protected areas can’t really do the job” unless there’s also protection outside the park or reserve.

In the autumns of 2013 and 2014 the NCC trapped wolves, gathered DNA, measured tracks, and fitted wolves with radio collars.
“People do see them,” Spence said. “At least a couple of times a year people will send us photos of animals that they see. Blurry, from a bit of a distance.”
One park staffer arrived for work at the Visitors’ Centre a month ago “and there was one right on the front lawn.”

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