The Alaska Department of Fish and Game confirmed last week that the population of Alexander Archipelago wolves on the largest island in the chain plummeted last year, yet it didn't recommend any changes to the upcoming wolf hunting season.
Citing a draft report from the ADFG, the U.S. Forest Service previously warned that the "dramatic decline" in the smaller, darker subspecies of gray wolves on Prince of Wales Island could complicate its long-running plan to allow logging in the Tongass National Forest, which spans much of the Alexander Archipelago (Greenwire, June 8).
In light of the latest update from state wildlife officials, conservation groups reiterated their demand that Alaska call off the hunting and trapping season for the island, which is set to begin later this year. Such a move seems unlikely given the tone of the ADFG memorandum, which was obtained by Greenpeace and released Friday.
The June 16 memo reported that the wolf population on Prince of Wales Island in the fall of 2014 had fallen to 89 wolves, down from 221 during the previous year. ADFG found that one wolf pack seems to have disappeared and that there could be as few as seven female wolves left on the nearly 2,600-square-mile island.
Nevertheless, state wildlife officials remain confident that no radical changes are necessary for managing the wolf population.
"We believe that as long as harvest remains low and other factors like prey availability and habitat suitability remain unchanged, wolves will recolonize the vacant pack territory with the study area and future density estimates will be higher," ADFG wrote.
The Fish and Wildlife Service is weighing whether Endangered Species Act protections are warranted for Alexander Archipelago wolves, which rely on the roots of old-growth trees in the Tongass to create their dens. The trees also protect Sitka black-tailed deer, the primary food source for the wolves.
Due to a settlement with the nonprofit Center for Biological Diversity, FWS has until the end of the year to decide on the status of the Alexander Archipelago wolf. If the wolf is deemed to be threatened or endangered, the Forest Service will have to consult with Fish and Wildlife to ensure logging sales do not jeopardize the species' survival or unduly degrade any critical habitat set aside for the wolves (E&ENews PM, Sept. 22, 2014).
FWS spokeswoman Vanessa Kauffman said, "The service is aware of the state's survey and will be considering it in our 12-month status review of the Alexander Archipelago wolf."
If Fish and Wildlife extends federal protections to the wolves, they would likely influence the contours of a final land-use plan for the Tongass that the Forest Service is working on. The national forest spans more than 26,600 square miles, including most of Prince of Wales. Logging roads provide increased access to the woods for hunters and trappers, who are the primary threat to the species.
Hunting ‘not set in stone’ -- ADFG
Greenpeace is concerned that another hunting season could jeopardize the ongoing viability of the Alexander Archipelago wolf on Prince of Wales.
"Opening another trapping and hunting season on this small, declining population is madness," Larry Edwards, the group's Alaska forest campaigner, said in a statement. "This is simply unsustainable, posing a grave risk to the population," he said, citing peer-reviewed studies that show total annual wolf mortality rates above 30 percent could lead to extinction.
The percentage of wolves killed last season was between 33 and 58 percent of the entire population, according to Greenpeace and the Center for Biological Diversity, which also signed onto the statement.
"To maintain a viable population of Alexander Archipelago wolves on this island, Alaska must cancel the [hunting and trapping] season," said Shaye Wolf, a biologist with the center. "We won't get a second chance to preserve these amazing animals."
But ADFG argued that the wolf tally probably understates the size of the island’s population.
"We see that estimate as very conservative," Ryan Scott, the southeast regional supervisor for ADFG's division of wildlife conservation, said in an interview.
Furthermore, Scott noted that Alaska may still decide against either having a wolf hunting and trapping season on Prince of Wales or cutting the season short.
"While we move forward with the possibility of season, it's not written in stone," he said. "There is talk with the Department of Fish and Game as well as trappers on the island, communities on the island, also with our subsistence wildlife managers, with the United States Forest Service -- so there's a whole lot of ground to cover before" the final decision is made.
Scott noted that the majority of wolves are harvested in the winter months, giving the ADFG and its partners some time to determine how to proceed on the island.
Meanwhile, Greenpeace used the news to take aim at the Forest Service's Tongass logging plan.
"The U.S. Forest Service wants the public to believe that [ADFG's] management of trapping and hunting can mitigate the effects of the Forest Service's continuing overlogging of the island, but that argument clearly has no merit," Edwards said.
The Forest Service declined to comment.