There are two unique wolf species in Ontario
Grey wolf (Canis lupus)
Range: Generally restricted to arctic and forested regions from Yukon to Labrador. Extinct in Maritimes
Population: 50-60,000 in Canada, 9,600 in Ontario
Status: Not at risk of extinction in Canada
Prey: Moose, white-tailed deer, elk, caribou beaver
Appearance: Varies from full black to full white, most wolves have mix of seal grey, white & tawny fur.
Weight: 20-50kg (males usually heavier)
Lifespan: 4-5 years; pup survival variable
Pack size: 4-8 animals
Eastern wolf (Canis lycaon, AKA Algonquin wolf)
Range: South-central Ontario and Quebec
Population: Unknown, but likely less than 500
Status: Threatened (ON), pending Threatened (Canada)
Prey: White-tailed deer specialist, also beaver & moose.
Appearance: Like eastern coyote, but often with red on legs, shoulders and snout.
Weight: 24-30kg (males usually heavier than females)
Lifespan: 4-6 years if survive to adulthood
Pack size: ~6, can include wolves, eastern coyotes & hybrids
Both species of wolves live in family-based units, called packs. A pack is composed of a breeding pair, its litter of pups, and sometimes a few other wolves, often relatives. Wolves are cooperative breeders, and each member of a pack plays a role in raising, teaching and caring for the pups.
Territory and Dominance
Each pack has a dynamic but well-marked territory. Members of the pack urinate and defecate in prominent areas in defense of territory, and also howl to communicate with other packs. Wolves also howl to communicate with other member of their family pack. Along with howling, wolves bark, yip and whine. Within a pack, the wolves are arranged in a social hierarchy that is maintained using a variety of these vocalizations, eye movements and posturing indicative of submission or dominance. Social dominance displays that maintain the tightly-knit family structure help to control breeding and the number of litters born in each pack. Unless food is extremely plentiful, most packs will only allow one pair to breed and will therefore have more resources to dedicate to the single litter.
A Wolf Pup’s First Year
Wolves will move to a den site where the pups will be born. Dens are often re-used year to year by wolves from the same family lineage. Depending on latitude, pups are born inside the den around end of April – mid-May after approximately 63 days in the womb. Generally, between 4-7 pups are born in each litter, but litters are larger when prey is more abundant or the wolves are heavily persecuted. Pups are born with their eyes closed, and except for taste and touch, the sense take time to develop. Eyesight, smell and hearing develop, and within a few weeks, the pups begin to emerge from their den where they have been nursed by the breeding female. By midsummer, the pack leaves the den and pups are generally left in secure areas called “rendezvous sites” while adults wolves hunt. Pups begin to hunt with the adults in fall, maturing into effective hunters around age 1-2. Eventually, almost all wolves disperse from their natal pack to search for a mate or new territory, often joining another pack. Eastern wolves disperse slightly earlier than grey wolves.
Wolves are also cooperative hunters, but are generally unsuccessful when attempting to take down the larger prey animals such as moose and arctic herbivores like musk oxen or caribou. Wolves will chase prey to identify and target old, weak or sick animals. Hunting large prey is both difficult and dangerous and the pack must work together. Wolf packs tend to have different hunting styles and preferences based on what prey is available within their territory. The passing of knowledge between generations creates a complex culture in wolf populations, particularly those protected from hunting and trapping. Scavenging is common, especially when animals are killed during severe winters.
Wolf Management and Social Chaos
Wolf management equates to hunting and trapping. Killing wolves disrupts the family-based pack structure, and leads to social chaos, family fragmentation and packs made up of unrelated wolves, which may have more frequent or larger litters.
In areas where caribou are declining, ultimately due to habitat destruction from industrial development, wolves are being shot from helicopters by the governments of Alberta and British Columbia. In areas with widespread ranching or declining prey populations that are highly valued by hunters, government bounties provide money to people who destroy wolves (e.g. Alberta and Manitoba). Sometimes these payments are not called bounties (e.g. in Ontario, where bounties are illegal), but they still are.
Wolves are also commonly hunted for sport and trophy. Many governments encourage wolf trapping for profit and do not institute limits on the number of wolves that can be killed. The most commonly used trapping device for wolves is the strangling neck snare. Research shows that snares fail to kill wolves quickly because their necks are strong and well muscled, leaving the animal to suffer for several days before ultimately succumbing. It is not uncommon for wolves to suffer serious injuries when attempting to escape themselves or help pack members escape. As highly social and emotional animals, wolves mourn for their family members when they are killed.
Wolf trapping endangers other species as well, including wolverines, caribou, deer, bears and birds of prey such as eagles. A trapper may lay hundreds of snares on his/her trapline, as they are inexpensive and easy to make. “Saturation snaring” occurs when many snares are set around a central bait area, attempting to eradicate whole wolf families.
In Ontario, the only place where eastern wolves have been intensively studied, hunting and trapping are well documented as the main threats. Compared to grey wolves, eastern coyotes and hybrids, eastern wolves are more susceptible to hunting and trapping. Moreover, hunting and trapping leads to increased interbreeding with eastern coyotes, which further dilutes the genetic integrity of the at-risk eastern wolf. Eastern wolves are rarely able to locate and establish a pack with members of their own species due to low survival and the number of eastern coyotes and grey wolves already occupying the same habitat.
Grey wolves are the ancestors of all dog breeds. Perhaps not surprisingly, the wolf-human relationship is a long and complex one.
Arctic wolves are wary, but seemingly unafraid and are not aggressive toward people, likely because they do not encounter humans or associate them with danger or food rewards.
Wolves that occupy habitat where they are hunted and trapped generally fear and avoid people, although they are known to use trails, railway lines, roads and other man-made features for travel. Unfortunately, vehicle collisions and increased access by hunters and trappers endanger wolves using these linear features.
Wolves can become food-conditioned when purposefully or accidentally fed. In National and Provincial Parks, this can be a serious problem, and the wolves are often destroyed as a result of being perceived to be an aggressive threat once conditioned to bother people for food or steal from campsites. Wolves will defend their pack territory against dogs if they are perceived as threatening intruders.
Learn more about wolves in western Canada at Wolf Awareness Inc.
Learn more about wolves in eastern Canada at Earthroots’ “Wolves Ontario” site.