SITKA, Alaska— The Center for Biological Diversity, Greenpeace and The Boat Company sued the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service today for delaying Endangered Species Act protection for the Alexander Archipelago wolf, a rare subspecies of gray wolf found only in the old-growth forests of southeast Alaska.
In August 2011 the groups filed a petition to protect the wolves, which are at risk of extinction because of the U.S. Forest Service’s unsustainable logging and road-building practices in the Tongass National Forest. The Fish and Wildlife Service in April made an initial finding that listing the Alexander Archipelago wolf may be warranted. But the agency is already a year and a half late in making its final decision on the listing, which was legally required 12 months after the petition was filed.
“The Forest Service is pumping out decisions on big Tongass timber sales as fast as it can, throughout wolf territory on the Tongass National Forest,” said Greenpeace forest campaigner Larry Edwards. “Decisions on five major timber projects are planned through next summer, on five of the region’s larger islands. That will be for about 10,000 acres of logging in old-growth forest, in places where wolf habitat has already been clobbered.”
Heavily reliant on old-growth forests, Alexander Archipelago wolves den in the root systems of very large trees and hunt mostly Sitka black-tailed deer, which are themselves dependent on high-quality, old-growth forests, especially for winter survival. A long history of clear-cut logging on the Tongass and private and state-owned lands has devastated much of the wolf’s habitat on the islands of southeast Alaska.
“As large carnivores disappear around the world, we still have a strong chance of saving this one-of-a-kind Alaska wolf,” said Rebecca Noblin, Alaska director at the Center. “We know exactly what the wolf needs: old-growth forest, plenty of deer, and refuge from humans. The Fish and Wildlife Service just needs to wake up and protect the wolves before it’s too late.”
Last year the Forest Service, in response to wolf issues in an appeal by the Center, Greenpeace and three allied organizations, temporarily halted its Big Thorne timber sale in the Tongass National Forest for further review. This was prompted by an expert declaration by preeminent Alexander Archipelago wolf biologist and former state of Alaska research biologist Dr. David Person that was part of the appeal. Person bluntly concluded that “the Big Thorne timber sale, if implemented, represents the final straw that will break the back of a sustainable wolf-deer predator-prey ecological community on Prince of Wales Island,” which is the third-largest island in the United States.
“Aside from clear ecological and ethical reasons for protecting the coastal wolf populations,” said The Boat Company’s Hunter McIntosh, “there are economic reasons too. Watchable wildlife in Southeast Alaska translates into real jobs and real revenues in the nature-based tourism sector of the visitor industry. If the wolf is allowed to disappear, a major attraction and source of inspiration and awe for thousands of would-be visitors would be gone.”
Since the 2011 petition to protect the wolves, the population on Prince of Wales has declined sharply. According to Person there were 45 to 50 wolves in the Big Thorne timber sale area in the mid-1990s. By 2010 the decline was obvious, and in 2013 he could find evidence of only six or seven wolves there, and estimated that population declined about 80 percent during the winter of 2012-2013 alone. Almost all the wolves were killed by people, both legally and illegally, and access via the island’s 3,000 miles of logging roads enables these unsustainable death rates. Wolves on other islands in southeast Alaska are facing state proposals for predator-control measures that will allow many more wolves to be killed in order to increase the number of deer available for people to hunt.