Citing a state study that shows a sharp decline in the wolf population on Prince of Wales Island and surrounding islands, six conservation groups have asked state and federal officials to take steps to help preserve the remaining animals.
Specifically, the six organizations want the state to cancel the upcoming wolf trapping and hunting season on POW, the federal Office of Subsistence Management to cancel the subsistence wolf harvest, and the Forest Service to halt logging activity on the Big Thorne Timber Sale.
Gabriel Scott is the legal director with the Alaska office of Cascadia Wildlands. He said the population numbers for POW wolves has not been clearly known for a long time.
“There’s new data, just come out, with a reasonable population estimate. And it’s much, much lower than it ought to be,” he said. “So that’s the bottom line: The population appears to be crashing on the island, and we can’t afford to let that happen.”
The Alaska Department of Fish and Game last month released a report showing that the number of wolves in Game Management Unit 2 had dropped in a single year from 221 to 89. The numbers are estimates, based on a relatively small study area on Prince of Wales Island.
To get that estimate, the number of wolves in the study area is counted, and that number is expanded to the rest of the game management unit. The estimate of 89 wolves is the midpoint of a range. The population could be as low as 50, or as high as 159, according to Fish and Game.
Gabriel Scott said the only way to get those numbers up is to halt all hunting for the time being, and make sure adequate habitat is in place for the wolves and their main source of food, which is Sitka blacktail deer.
“One of the big pieces of this puzzle that often gets overlooked is the habitat component,” he said. “That’s where the rubber meets the road. The deer population is not high enough to support human hunters and wolves. And when that happens, the wolves are the ones who go.”
Habitat in this case means old-growth forest, which is why the groups want to stop logging on the Big Thorne Timber Sale.
Tongass National Forest Spokesman Kent Cummins confirms that the Forest Service has received the letter from the six conservation groups. He said officials will revisit the issue to see whether there is a need for a Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement, which is one of the requests in the letter.
“I think, with a sense of urgency, they’ll look at this information,” Cummins said. “If necessary, they’ll proceed with another supplement.”
He said the Forest Service takes its role as a steward of the land seriously. But, he said, it can be a delicate balancing act.
The Big Thorne Timber Sale is a critical project from an economic point of view, and it’s meant to help the timber industry stay afloat as it switches from old-growth to second-growth harvest.
“It gives a multi-year supply of timber there on Prince of Wales, and stability for jobs, and giving local businesses the opportunity to retool and seek new markets for the young growth trees,” Cummins said. “That’s the dilemma.”
He said logging is taking place now on the Big Thorne Timber Sale. Halting that activity immediately while the Forest Service looks into the wolf population report is unlikely without a court-ordered injunction.
And then there’s hunting and trapping.
Ryan Scott is Southeast Region Supervisor for Fish and Game. He said he hasn’t read the letter sent to the state asking for suspension of the coming wolf harvest on POW. However, he said that from the agency’s perspective, there isn’t a conservation concern about that wolf population.
“Even with the lower estimate, the number of animals there, and what we know about the animals there, suggests that they’re viable and they’re going to persist well into the future,” he said.
Ryan Scott said the state’s hunting and trapping season starts Dec. 1, which gives officials time to look into wolf numbers and options for the season. They’ve already reduced the maximum allowed harvest from 30 percent to 20 percent of the estimated population.
“Recognizing that we had such a decline in the estimates, I don’t think it’s very likely that we would open it to the maximum allowable harvest of 18 wolves,” he said. “Where that harvest quota would land, that’s undetermined at this point.”
Gabriel Scott of Cascadia said he doesn’t share the state’s confidence that POW wolves will be OK. He points to the fact that his organization is asking for a halt to the subsistence harvest as evidence of how serious they believe the situation has become.
“Asking to stop a subsistence hunt is a really extraordinary step for us to take,” he said. “It’s the absolute last thing that we would want to do.”
The subsistence harvest is set to start on Sept. 1. A call to the Federal Office of Subsistence Management in Anchorage wasn’t returned.
The six organizations that submitted the letters are Cascadia Wildlands, Center for Biological Diversity, Greater Southeast Alaska Conservation Community, the Boat Company, Alaska Wildlife Alliance and Greenpeace.