SITKA, Alaska— State and federal authorities are reporting a “dramatic decline in the wolf population on Prince of Wales Island, Tongass National Forest.” A new report records a 60 percent drop in the number of Alexander Archipelago wolves in just one year, reinforcing conservationists’ arguments that plans to log old-growth forests on the island should be halted to protect the wolf and other wildlife.
An Alaska Department of Fish and Game draft report estimates a total of only 89 wolves in the area — including 60 on the main island — compared with 220 only a year ago. That estimate was cited in a May 29 briefing paper by the U.S. Forest Service — whose approval of the Big Thorne timber sale on the island is being challenged in court by Greenpeace and the Center for Biological Diversity and other groups. The Forest Service warns the new data “increases the probability of [an Endangered Species Act\ listing and will almost certainly become a factor in ongoing litigation against timber sales.”
“This sudden and dramatic decline of Alexander Archipelago wolves on Prince of Wales is scary,” said the Center’s Alaska Director Rebecca Noblin. “Our efforts to save the wolves may prove too little, too late unless the Fish and Wildlife Service takes these numbers to heart and protects the wolves under the Endangered Species Act. Once they’re gone, they’re gone.”
The revelations come as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service works toward a year-end determination on whether to list the Alexander Archipelago wolf as a threatened or endangered species under the Endangered Species Act, in response to a petition filed by Greenpeace and the Center for Biological Diversity. Threats to the Alexander Archipelago wolf all stem from old-growth forest habitat loss to logging and human access to formerly remote places on the extensive system of logging roads. Right now, primary wolf habitat on Prince of Wales lays in the path of the Big Thorne timber project, a major old-growth logging effort that is being challenged in the Ninth Circuit court of appeals.
“The new information is shocking and tragic,” said Larry Edwards of Greenpeace, who has worked on wolf issues in the region for over a decade. “A one-year 60 percent drop in population is bad enough, but the critical problem is that the Prince of Wales area population had already been reduced to a very low number. Now, the number is in the red zone.”
Worse yet, the 89-wolf estimate is already outdated, the Forest Service briefing paper indicates. The “estimates were made prior to the 2014/2015 hunting and trapping season, wherein 29 animals were known to be taken. This further reduces the likely population.”
The wolves on Prince of Wales and its associated islands are geographically isolated and genetically distinct from other Alexander Archipelago wolves, which themselves are a subspecies of gray wolves. Recent genetic research shows that a large portion of genetic diversity in the gray wolf species is found in Alexander Archipelago wolves, making them especially important from a conservation perspective.
The information on the new population estimate comes from a Forest Service briefing paper that summarizes the content of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s report. The briefing paper was provided to Greenpeace yesterday. The final report will likely be issued next week.
“After we see the full report, we will decide what actions to take,” Edwards said. “I testified to the Board of Game in January, after hearing the Department of Fish and Game’s presentation on these wolves. I said the board should close the season until the next board cycle, three years from now. That was not done, even though a crisis seemed obvious already. We are prepared to ask the Department’s commissioner for an emergency order blocking the 2015/2016 season.”
The Center for Biological Diversity and Greenpeace filed the petition to protect Alexander Archipelago wolves under the Endangered Species Act in 2011. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service made a preliminary determination last year that listing the species “may be warranted.”