not everyone thinks of wolves as the majestic creatures nature lovers believe they are. Up Algonquin Park way, where campers flock every year to hear the haunting howls, locals sometimes have quite different ideas. There, it seems, attitudes haven't changed much since the first eastern European settlers told bedtime stories to their young about Little Red Riding Hood and The Three Little Pigs.
While ecologists are panicked that there are only about 15o wolves and 30 packs in Algonquin, half the number that used to roam the rocky terrain a short 30 years ago, many hunters seem unconcerned.
More than a month ago an advisory group set up by the province and including environmentalists and hunting reps submitted recommendations to natural resources minister John Snobelen. Among the proposals was one to close hunting and trapping in counties around the park for four months beginning in December.
But well into this winter's hunting and trapping season, the minister has suddenly announced that he will be seeking more input. Skeptics fear it will come from the same interests that have been fighting wolf protection.
It's sobering news for environmentalists who sat on the committee and clawed for any concessions they could get. In the end they left unsatisfied, claiming the committee's recommendations will only give the wolves a 50-50 chance of survival. What's really needed, they say, is a 10-kilometre no- kill zone around the park.
They are emboldened by new evidence that the Algonquin wolf is a special species whose DNA closely resembles the endangered red wolf of the northeastern United States. John Theberge, a former University of Waterloo biologist who has spent 11 years studying the animals, says the wolves are facing a precarious future.
"We Canadians give advice to people all over the world on managing endangered species, and here we have one in Canada and we bow down to exploitative interests with a whole species at stake. I think it's a disgrace."***Wolves may be at the top of the food chain in Algonquin Park, but their survival depends on a delicate balance of factors.
Voracious eaters who can consume up to one-fifth of their body weight at a time, they require a plentiful diet of beaver, moose and deer to survive.
Smaller animals like rabbits and muskrat are only eaten when other food is in short supply. Wolves have been known to range across up to 235 square kilometres when looking for prey in winter.
They are also very selective breeders. Each pack has only one breeding pair that remain together throughout their lives. An average litter contains five pups, but litters are typically half that size in Ontario. Because wolves don't become sexually mature until they're two or three years old and don't live beyond five or six years in the wild, it's not uncommon for entire packs to disappear over one winter when hunted by humans.
And hunted they have been. The park affords wolves protection, but once they venture out, as they do in winter after deer, it's open season.
What's happening with the creatures, of course, depends on who you listen to. Hunters and trappers say lower populations of deer and beaver are the main cause of depletion. Nothing to be too worried about, just part of the ebb and flow of nature.
"Geez, they're all over the place here at night," says Laurie Whyte, a Lanark-area trapper who represented the Ontario Fur Managers Federation on the province's wolf advisory group. "You can hear them howling."
Environmentalists' foes like to complain about how wolves kill deer that ought to be taken by hunters and poach livestock, though there's really very little livestock farming going on in the townships around the park any more. Most poaching is likely the work of coyotes, which have developed into a particular nuisance.
The province, which reimburses farmers for livestock killed by predators, admits as much. In fact, farmers in the region consider deer that have acquired a taste for soy crops even more of a nuisance.
But the wolf's big, bad reputation precedes it.
To hear Alfred Beck tell it, the wolves in Algonquin "are doing just fine." He represented the Ontario Federation of Anglers and Hunters on the wolf advisory group, a 12-person body where eco types were outnumbered by trappers and hunters two-to- one.
"Hunters are more prone to kill a wolf just because it happens to appear in front of them," says Beck. "But for people to go out to shoot wolves, that just doesn't happen. Some people want to romanticize the wolf, but they can do a lot of damage."
Dale Gillan, a local farmer and councillor from McNabb, is one of the more prominent voices on the issue even though he thinks coyotes are causing most local people's problems.
Gillan figures wolves have had to "move to where the easy pickings are" outside Algonquin because there are too many of them hunting for deer inside the park. "Maybe there's too many of them, I don't know. (But) there's all kinds of deer around here. The farmers can hardly keep them out of the field."
But according to Jean Langlois of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society, this is bogus science. "You can have all the deer around you want, but if you're still killing one in three wolves every year, it's not going to change the population trajectory."
Then there's the troubling sight of stray wolves, an unusual occurrence in the wild. "These packs operate as a biological unit," says Theberge. If that's in any way disrupted, "you lose the ecological fitness of the hunting unit and the care of the young. Then you have social deterioration."
The province is now mulling over the Algonquin wolf advisory group's recommendations. Senior managers in the ministry have not always been keen on policy changes that place their political masters in the middle of controversy.
Barry Radford, communications adviser to the fish and wildlife branch, doesn't deny that politics will play a large part in what the minister eventually decides to do. The province is already feeling the pressure from Algonquin-area hunters and trappers.
"Do we want a sustainable wolf population in Algonquin Park?" Radford asks. "There are all kinds of reasons why we would. But once you enter the political realm, anything can happen."
Last time the province tried to restrict hunting, it had a near riot and a lawsuit from the Ontario Federation of Anglers and Hunters on its hands. Bears were the quarry then. The province responded by opening more parks to hunting.
Radford suggests that the province probably won't be making a decision before spring. email@example.com