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Study: Wolf packs recover after hunting and trapping banned

[large thumbnail url=”study-wolf-packs-recover-after-hunting-and-trapping-banned” filename=”science” year=”2009″ month=”12″ day=”11″] [thumbnail icon url=”study-wolf-packs-recover-after-hunting-and-trapping-banned” filename=”science” year=”2009″ month=”12″ day=”11″] One of the major concerns related to hunting and killing of animals in any systematic way is the potential isolation of specific groups and the overall weakening of the gene pool for healthy future generations

A ban on the hunting and trapping of wolves in Algonquin Provincial Park, Canada, has had very beneficial effects on the population, but not perhaps in the way you might expect.

The numbers of wolves in the region has stayed steady. However, the wolves have reassembled into natural packs. Meaning that the wolf dispersion has created healthy intermingling of the family units – a necessary process to avoid inbreeding. The study highlights the necessity to look further than just population numbers. The social and behavioral health of the population is just as important when planning conservation programs.

Taken from a summary written by Roberta Kwok, published on the Conservation Magazine website.

Researchers tracked 112 eastern wolves (Canis lycaon) in the park after the government issued a harvest ban in nearby towns. While deaths due to hunting and trapping decreased, the population density stayed around three wolves per 100 square kilometers, mainly due to deaths by natural causes. Analysis of blood samples, however, showed a dramatic change in wolf pack structure. Before the ban, 12 out of 15 packs contained unrelated wolves; after the ban, that number dropped to one out of 17 packs.

The research was published in Biological Conservation as “Protection from harvesting restores the natural social structure of eastern wolf packs.” – The following is the abstract from the paper.

Legal and illegal killing of animals near park borders can significantly increase the threat of extirpation for populations living within ecological reserves, especially for wide-ranging large carnivores that regularly travel into unprotected areas. While the consequences of human-caused mortality near protected areas generally focus on numerical responses, little attention has been given to impacts on social dynamics.

For wolves, pack structure typically constitutes an unrelated breeding pair, their offspring, and close relatives, but intense harvest may increase adoption of unrelated individuals into packs. Concerns that high human-caused mortality outside Algonquin Park, Canada threatened the persistence of eastern wolves, led to implementation of a harvest ban in surrounding townships.

We combined ecological and genetic data to show that reducing anthropogenic causes of mortality can restore the natural social structure of kin-based groups despite the absence of a marked change in density. Since implementation of the harvest ban, human-caused mortality has decreased (P = 0.000006) but been largely offset by natural mortality, such that wolf density has remained relatively constant at approximately three wolves/100 km2. However,

the number of wolf packs with unrelated adopted animals has decreased from 80% to 6% (P = 0.00003). Despite the high kinship within packs, incestuous matings were rare. Our results indicate that even in a relatively large protected area, human harvesting outside park boundaries can affect evolutionarily important social patterns within protected areas.

This research demonstrates the need for conservation policy to consider effects of harvesting beyond influences on population size.

Rutledge, L., Patterson, B., Mills, K., Loveless, K., Murray, D., & White, B. (2009).
Protection from harvesting restores the natural social structure of eastern wolf packs

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