SITKA, Alaska— The Center for Biological Diversity, Greenpeace and The Boat Company reached an agreement with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service today requiring the agency to decide whether to grant Endangered Species Act protection for the Alexander Archipelago wolf by Dec. 31, 2015. The Alexander Archipelago wolf is a unique subspecies of gray wolf found in Alaska’s Tongass National Forest that is imminently threatened by road building and logging of its old-growth forest habitat.
“This agreement is a lifeline for Alaska’s rarest and most charismatic wolves,” said Rebecca Noblin, Alaska director at the Center. “We hope it serves as a wakeup call to the Forest Service that old-growth logging in America’s largest national forest isn’t cutting it for the wolves.”
The groups petitioned the agency to protect the wolves in August 2011; in April the Fish and Wildlife Service made an initial finding that protecting the Alexander Archipelago wolf may be warranted. The groups sued the Fish and Wildlife Service after the agency missed a legal deadline to make its final decision, 12 months after the petition was filed.
“We are pleased to now have certainty on a final date for the listing decision, a date that is well in advance of the Forest Service’s scheduled amendment of the Tongass Forest Plan, in August 2016,” said Greenpeace forest campaigner Larry Edwards.
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 clearcut logging on the Tongass and private and state-owned lands has devastated much of the wolves’ habitat on the islands of southeast Alaska. The Forest Service continues to hold timber sales in important wolf habitat.
In response to an appeal by the Center, Greenpeace and three allied organizations, the Forest Service last year temporarily halted the Big Thorne timber sale in the Tongass National Forest for further review. This was prompted by a formal expert declaration in the appeal by Dr. David Person, a preeminent Alexander Archipelago wolf biologist and former State of Alaska research biologist. 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.
Despite that declaration, the Forest Service announced last month its intent to move forward with the Big Thorne sale. The Center, Greenpeace and The Boat Company recently sued to challenge that decision in court.
“We wish the Fish and Wildlife Service had acted years ago to consider listing the wolf,” said Joel Hanson, conservation director for the eco-cruise business The Boat Company. “With every passing visitor season, our wilderness guides report fewer and fewer instances of wolf sightings around the region. The wolf’s howl is fast disappearing from the Tongass soundscape.”
Since the 2011 petition to protect the wolves, the animals’ 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 from field studies that the population declined about 80 percent during the winter of 2012-2013. Almost all the deceased wolves were killed by people, many illegally. Access via the island’s 3,000 miles of logging roads enables these unsustainable death rates.
Wolves on other islands in southeastern 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.
In today’s settlement the Alexander Archipelago wolf is one of 10 species across the country that now have binding deadlines for the Fish and Wildlife Service to issue final protection decisions. The other species include the San Bernardino flying squirrel, the Ichetucknee siltsnail from Florida, the black-backed woodpecker from California and South Dakota, Kirtland’s snake from the Midwest, and four freshwater species from the southeastern United States, including two fish, a mussel and a crayfish. The animals are facing extinction for many reasons, chief among them habitat loss from logging and sprawl, groundwater overuse, climate change or pollution.
A landmark settlement in 2011 between the Center and the Fish and Wildlife Service set legally binding deadlines for the Service to make protection decisions for 757 species around the country. To date, 137 species have gained Endangered Species Act protection as the result of the agreement, and another six have been proposed for protection.
The agreement also allows the Center to seek expedited protection decisions for 10 additional species per year when the agency has missed legal deadlines. The Alexander Archipelago wolf was one of this year’s 10.