How many wolves should be on Prince of Wales Island?

A wolf on Prince of Wales Island, as captured by a trail camera. (Photo courtesy of the Alaska Department of Fish & Game)

The Alexander Archipelago Wolf didn’t go on the endangered species list in 2016, after it was petitioned by six conservation groups. But the feds and the state are looking at ways to stabilize the wolf population on Prince of Wales Island.

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In a joint-effort, new recommendations were released this month. But this holistic approach still leaves open a lot of questions.

Gretchen Roffler, a biologist with the Alaska Department of Fish & Game, isn’t taking any chances.

“A couple of months ago I ordered a new supply of lure and had it delivered to our office,” Roffler said. “It showed up just in a cardboard box. And everyone in the building could smell it.”

Roffler’s agreed to show the lure — or wolf bait — away from people.

“And you will see it has quite the potent cache,” Roffler said.

Roffler pulled the lid off a white bucket and removed a bottle from two plastic bags. It looks yellowish-brown, almost syrupy and the smell…

“It’s got an odor of skunk. It’s a little onion-y … The wolves find it irresistible,” Roffler said.

So irresistible they roll on baited barbed wire that collects their hair, like a comb. Roffler uses the hair to estimate the wolf population.

“Instead of marking them with a physical thing like a wolf collar, we mark them genetically,” Roffler said.

Back in 1994, the state thought there were over 260 wolves living on Prince of Wales. The animals were tracked using radio collars and fly over aerial surveys. Roffler now uses the hair snare method, and her team’s last count places the population at about 100 wolves.

The reason for decline? Well, that depends on who you ask.

Steve Brockmann, a federal employee with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, said there’s evidence to suggest that at least in part, it has to do with over-harvesting.

“There’s a significant segment of the trapping community that’s interested in protecting a deer population for human hunters,” Brockmann said.

Brockmann is part of a group that includes Alaska’s Department of Fish & Game and the U.S. Forest Service: agencies that say they’re interested in keeping the wolf population on Prince of Wales sustainable. After a year of meetings, the group came up with some guidelines that are built around a philosophy Brockmann calls “managing the ecosystem.”

“Wolves, humans, deer and timber,” Brockmann said.

Brockmann said timber that was harvested in the 1960s left changes to the landscape on Prince of Wales.

“A lot of places that were logged during that period have now grown back to dense stands of young growth that really do offer poor habitat for deer,” Brockmann said.

That can mean fewer deer on the island. So, the guidelines suggest opening up spots of young growth trees, creating a good place to grow food for the deer. And Brockmann said more deer on Prince of Wales could mean more wolves, too.

Keep in mind, people are allowed to hunt or trap a set number of wolves on Prince of Wales. Brockman said some do it for the pelts and some do it because they believe they’re competing with the wolves for deer. It becomes a problem when the taking of wolves is excessive.

“We found wolves dead,” Brockmann said. “It’s not that they didn’t come back, it’s that we found them dead in the woods with a bullet hole in ’em or with trap wounds or in a snare or something like that. Not reported.”

Of those that actually do get reported, Fish & Game was notified of around 28 wolf kills on Prince of Wales by the end of last season. The quota was set at 11.

Ryan Scott, the regional supervisor with the Alaska Department of Fish & Game, worked on the new guidelines with the other agencies. He said there are still indeed some wolves that wind up dead, as he puts it from “unreported human caused mortality.”

“Certainly, there’s some level of that happening,” Scott said. “But it’s not occurring at the  level it may have been in the past.”

In fact, Scott said the wolf population on Prince of Wales is increasing, from 89 wolves in 2014 to more than 100.

I ask if there’s still a reason to be concerned.

“I don’t think so. Yeah. They seem very healthy,” Scott said.

Even so, the new guidelines Scott helped create do call for coming up with a target number, but he said his agency doesn’t know what that number should be.

“I think that a lot of additional conversation is going to have to happen to figure that out,” Scott said.