Protection From Harvesting Restores the Natural Social Structure of Eastern Wolf Packs
July 2, 2019
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 km. 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.
Author(s): Linda Y. Rutledge, Brent R. Patterson, Kenneth J. Mills, Karen M. Loveless, Dennis L. Murray, Bradley N. White