Cross-bred animals found on Vancouver Island ‘aren’t fit as pets or wild creatures’

By Nicholas Read,
Special to the Vancouver Sun A1
September 29, 2009

Scientists working on Vancouver Island have determined for the first time that when you try to eliminate a population of wolves from an area, you run the risk of repopulating that area with what one biologist called “monster wolves.”Beginning in the 1920s and continuing well into the 1970s, the government of British Columbia undertook several hunting, trapping and poisoning campaigns to remove all wolves from Vancouver Island so sport hunters would find it easier to hunt and kill black-tailed deer, the wolves’ principal source of food.

Consequently when a few hardy wolves swam across Georgia Strait from the northern B.C. mainland in the early 1980s in an attempt to find new territories, some were unable to find mates. So they mated with domestic stray dogs instead.

The result, say researchers from the University of Sweden, the Smithsonian Institution in Washington and the Raincoast Conservation Foundation, was something never documented before in the wild: animals who were neither wolves nor dogs. These wolves carried genetic material from female dogs.

Their research is published in the latest edition of the journal, Conservation Genetics.

So-called wolf hybrids are bred purposely by some breeders as pets, though they are regarded by animal welfare groups as ill-conceived and potentially dangerous. But they had never been documented in the wild before. Now they have.

“If the wolf-control campaign had carried on and kept wild wolves at low levels, we would have had, potentially, a population of monster wolves on Vancouver Island,” Raincoast biologist and University of California postdoctoral researcher Chris Darimont said in an interview.

“Animals that aren’t fit as pets or wild creatures. What our work found is an historical signal of tremendous ecological and social imbalance among wolves as a result of government wolf control.”

Darimont hastens to add that the 200 or so wolves who now live on Vancouver Island are not “monsters”.

It’s likely, he says, that the hybrids born in the 1980s were unable to survive in the wild and therefore unable to propagate. Instead, the wolves who were able to find wolf mates became the ancestors of the small population of wild Vancouver Island wolves that now exists. Wolves can have as many as five pups a year.

What is certain is that today’s Vancouver Island wolves represent an entirely different lineage from those who lived there before government wolf-control programs began. In other words, Darimont explained, they no longer bear any real genetic link to the wolves who lived there 40, 50 or 60 years ago, which goes to show how “brutally successful” the control programs were.

Had they continued, he adds, it’s possible that any wolves still on Vancouver Island might be “monsters” maladapted to survive in the wild and unfit to be taken in as pets.

“Wolf control is indefensible ethically. I think most British Columbians would agree with that,” Darimont said. “What this study contributes to the discourse is additional ecological evidence that wolf control is a very bad idea indeed.”

Yet it’s one that still has its proponents. Between 2003 and 2005 a wolf sterilization program, organized by the B.C. environment ministry but bankrolled by big-game hunters, was undertaken in the Muskwa Kechika area of northern B.C. to boost moose populations there. Another 20 to 40 wolves are being targeted either for “sterilization or removal” in the B.C. interior to help rescue endangered mountain caribou.

Of the Vancouver Island findings, ministry officials said: “. . . while certainly interesting, the research presented here looks at a situation with a very small and geographically isolated sub-population of wolves that resulted from broad-scale eradication attempts early in the previous century. While the genetic conclusions may be relevant in situations where conservation is a concern . . . that situation is not one that represents the current status of grey wolves in B.C.”

But Darimont says the Conservation Genetics study and others like it show any wolf-control program is a mistake because of its unforeseen and potentially dire consequences.

“What happened on Vancouver Island is another unintended consequence of wolf control, one that could have had potentially devastating consequences in the long term.”

The scientists made their discovery by accident. In demonstrating the genetic distinctiveness of wolves living along the B.C. coast, a revelation published in 2007, they came upon something they’d never seen before: wild wolf remains of fur and bones that contained genetic markers peculiar to dogs, not wolves.

Further study led them to conclude that these animals were neither wolves nor dogs, but wolf hybrids — creatures unfit to survive in the wild or domestically.

What they think happened is that when wolves were wiped out of Vancouver Island, as few as 16 mainland wolves — perhaps eight males and eight females — swam across Georgia Strait in the late 1970s or early ’80s in search of new territories. But while those wolves probably found plenty of deer meat to eat, some were starved for sex. So some of the males took the previously unheard of step of mating with domestic dogs and creating hybrid offspring.

What makes this particularly extraordinary, says Darimont, are the estrus cycles of wolves and dogs. Wild wolves will mate for only two weeks a year in early winter. Domestic female dogs come into heat twice a year, but at no set time. So the odds of a wild male wolf “getting together successfully” with a domestic female dog are tiny, he explained. The fact that they did demonstrates how desperate the wolves were.

“The timing had to be exquisite, and this gives us a good idea of how difficult it was for these original founders to find appropriate mates. If the males had to resort to getting with a female dog, things were pretty desperate on the single scene. It was ecologically and socially a desperate time for wolves. And an environment I hope Vancouver Island wolves never see again.”

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Coastal wolf with a salmon in its month.
Photo by Dene Rossouw.