On the western coast of Canada lives a population of small wolves that are likely genetically distinct from their grey wolf cousins.
Pacific Coastal wolves are have red-tinted hair instead of grey, exist largely on a marine diet and spend much of their time swimming between islands. This makes this wolf population unique in behaviour, looks, diet and genetic makeup, according to a study by The Raincoast Conservation Foundation.
Instead of relying on moose or elk like other wolf populations, coastal wolves have only small, black-tailed deer on their meat menu, so they turn to seafood. They eat spawning salmon, beached whales and even kill seals and seal pups.
True island wolves, they swim between foraging patches on the many islands, such as in the Broken Group or Clayoquot Sound.
No accurate population figures are available, but scientists estimate there are approximately 2,000 coastal wolves and they face increasing threats from loss of habitat, depletion of salmon stocks and trophy hunting.
If the coastal wolves are recognized as a distinct species, they would immediately qualify as an endangered species, and receive protection.
Paul Paquet, one of the study’s authors, describes some wolf habitat in B.C, including much of Vancouver Island, as a “wilderness ghetto” with tree farms instead of old-growth forest and roads intersecting forest, meaning increased hunting and trapping. Resident hunters require no special permits for wolves, with a limit of three a year, and trappers have no bag limits.
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The research was headed by Violeta Munoz-Fuentes of Uppsala University in Sweden. Collaborating were the Smithsonian Institution, University of Victoria, University of Calgary and University of California, Lavoie writes. The study is to be published soon in the Journal of Biogeography, a peer-reviewed science journal.