Coastal B.C.'s fish-munching, island-hopping wolves will need to be better managed if the species is to thrive for future generations, says an expert on the unique animals.
A report released last week by the Raincoast Conservation Foundation found that coastal wolves from Vancouver Island up to Alaska are genetically different from their mainland cousins.
Their hair has a tint of red, instead of grey, and depending on exactly where they live, marine creatures can make up to 75% of their diet.
Coastal wolves will dig for clams, hunt sea lions or feast on a beached whale. These animals travel from island to island, but never venture far from the ocean.
"If you're a wolf on the coast and you're born on the coast, you're going to stay there," said Chris Darimont of the University of California, whose University of Victoria doctorate is on wolf populations. He was one of several scientists who worked on the report.
"If you took the average coastal wolf and dropped it off in Interior B.C., its chances of surviving and reproducing and mixing its genes with Interior populations is extremely low."
Darimont said he's unsure exactly how many wolves live along the coast, but guesses "there are a few hundred" on Vancouver Island.
Because these animals can't be found anywhere else in the world, the report concludes that they should be recognized as an "evolutionarily significant unit" that deserves special conservation.
"That means management ought to afford them extra precautionary measures, because we have a lot to lose. If they were exchangeable with other populations, then we can be a little more liberal with our management of them," said Darimont.
Although the coastal wolf species isn't at any immediate risk, logging of old-growth forests and other alterations to the wolves' habitat, in addition to dwindling salmon stocks, could one day have an effect on its numbers.
He said the provincial government's management of the wolves has been "pretty hands off" and more restrictions are needed on wolf hunting. Unlike many large-game species, a person doesn't need a big-game licence to kill them.
Forestry practices also need to leave old-growth forests untouched, while some access roads used by hunters may have to be closed.
"A lot of these things I understand may not be popular things for a lot of people around Nanaimo who make their living through forestry. But we can't have it all. If British Columbians want to substitute ecological integrity for access to recreational areas, then that's a decision they'll have to make, but at least they will be well-informed about the tradeoffs," said Darimont, who stressed that he and the Raincoast Conservation Foundation isn't against hunting, only hunting for trophies. And that's why most people kill wolves.
A Ministry of Environment spokesperson said staff will be reviewing the report on coastal wolves.
Darimont will be giving a multimedia presentation on these animals and other creatures found in the Great Bear Rainforest in Nanaimo on Monday at the Vancouver Island University theatre at 7 p.m.