Christian Mehlführer photo

There was a time in the not so distant past when half of our continent was the territory of the eastern wolf, a marvelous subspecies slightly smaller than their western counterparts and widespread, guarding territory from Newfoundland to the Great Lakes, from the Boreal Forest to Texas. But that all changed with the arrival of Europeans.

Bounties incentivizing the killing of wolves began as early as 1630 and continued into the late 1800s, driving this particular subspecies into near obscurity. The last eastern wolf encountered in Nova Scotia was in 1900. Newfoundland’s last was in 1913 while New Brunswick’s was in 1880. These wolves have lost so much ground in fact that their only remaining territory is concentrated in southwestern Quebec and southeastern Ontario, particularly in the Algonquin Provincial Park. All told there are 2,000 left in Canada, only 1,000 of whom are mature adults.

These wonderful animals, their names synonymous with wildness, were persecuted for their perceived threat to people and livestock, but their eradication from eastern North America had an unintended consequence. With the territory of the eastern wolf no longer defended, coyotes rushed in to fill the void, displacing or assimilating what remained of their stronger wolfish cousins.

In the end we traded one predator for another, upsetting an ecological balance which may never be righted. But what of the remaining eastern wolves in Algonquin and elsewhere? Could they repopulated and retake their ancestral home? Unlikely. Even the strongholds of eastern wolves in Quebec and Ontario haven’t escaped the rise of the coyote.

Genetic studies of those eastern wolves inhabiting Algonquin Provincial Park reveal they’re not quite, or at least aren’t entirely, wolves anymore. Only 60 per cent of their genes come from the species we know as the eastern wolf. The other 40 per cent come from coyotes. Hybridization is a time honoured practice between these two species, meaning the eastern wolf is literally, slowly, being bred out of existence. Should the remainder of this once abundant subspecies expand into lands beyond Algonquin, they would find themselves in a sea of coyotes, doomed to lose their genetic identity in generations to come.

Whatever the eastern wolves might have been, what remains of them undoubtedly lives on, scattered across eastern Canada in the genes of conquering coyotes and clinging to existence in the Algonquin Provincial Park. With the revival of this species unlikely, this is a consolation we might have to live with.

Zack Metcalfe is a freelance environmental journalist, author, and writer of Shades of Green. He operates out of Halifax, Nova Scotia.

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