Greenpeace sues to protect rare Islands wolf

Feature story - July 10, 2008
Update - January 11, 2010: This lawsuit is now moving toward completion. The Forest Service delayed the case by withholding some timber project documents from the litigation record. The judge ordered them included in July 2009, and then briefing proceeded by the two sides. Our final brief is due January 18, 2010, and will be followed by oral arguments. A decision is likely in spring 2010.Also, a second lawsuit was filed on January 11, 2010 to protect the Islands wolf and its habitat from threats posed by the Logjam timber project.

Greenpeace and Cascadia Wildlands Project filed a federal lawsuit today against the U.S. Forest Service for violating environmental laws in its planning of four logging projects in Alaska's Tongass National Forest. The federal agency has not only deliberately under-reported the effects of logging ancient forests in its environmental impact statements on the logging projects over the past decade, but has also continually refused to disclose or even consider legitimate criticisms of the projects.

At issue are impacts of logging operations on Sitka black-tailed deer - a vital food source for the rare "Islands wolf" (AKA: Canis lupus ligoni or Alexander Archipelago wolf), a grey wolf subspecies endemic to the region that is found nowhere else on Earth. The Islands wolf population is currently estimated at between 750 and 1,100 individuals. In the isolated Tongass region's rural communities, deer are also food on the table for many families who subsist in large part on wild game.  

Assuring enough deer to sustain human needs and viable populations of the Islands wolf is dependent on maintaining crucial old-growth forest habitat. But in many places the old-growth forest has been substantially depleted by a half-century of industrial scale logging. Although the pace of logging has slowed in recent years, the Forest Service is trying to ramp it up to five times the current pace. Even the current pace of logging is problematic, however, because of the significant loss of high quality old-growth forest over the past half-century.

The lawsuit, Greenpeace, Inc. and Cascadia Wildlands v. Cole, et al., filed in the United States District Court in Alaska, takes on the vital task of forcing the Forest Service to fairly and accurately assess the impacts of its current Tongass timber projects on deer, hunters and the Islands wolf. It alleges that the federal agency has violated three key environmental laws:

  • NEPA (the National Environmental Policy Act), which requires that the public and an agency's decision-makers be fully and accurately informed before a decision is made. It requires, in impact statements, a "hard look" at impacts through "full and fair discussion" of all responsibly raised issues and the disclosure of important facts and any significant impacts.
  • NFMA (the National Forest Management Act), which requires that the "viability and wide distribution" of native species be protected and that  "best available science" be used in forest planning.
  • ANILCA (the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act), which provides protections for subsistence resources and uses in Alaska.

The viability of Tongass wildlife species - the Islands wolf prominent among them - is a long-standing concern for the Tongass. In 1997, the Forest Service avoided a 'threatened' listing of the Islands wolf under the Endangered Species Act by including a protective standard in its new Tongass Forest Plan. The standard was intended to protect both the wolf's "viability and wide distribution" and the needs of families that, along with the wolf, depend on deer for food.

"The Forest Service's own standard, adopted to avoid a threatened species listing for the Islands wolf, is in the way of its ambition to expand its Tongass timber program," said Greenpeace forest campaigner Larry Edwards, a long-time resident of the region. "We think it is no accident that the Forest Service's deer habitat modeling errors all work in one direction - consistently overestimating habitat by as much as 120 percent, and consequently underestimating logging impacts."

Greenpeace, its co-plaintiff, and the Alaska Department of Fish & Game have repeatedly challenged the scientific veracity of Forest Service estimates of logging impacts on deer.

For years Greenpeace has been calling the Forest Service to task for routinely violating all of these laws and its own Forest Plan standard concerning the impact of logging on deer winter habitat. These efforts have consistently been met with stonewall tactics from the Forest Service, which even went so far as to ignore the many scientific studies that have been brought to its attention. Having exhausted administrative remedies, Greenpeace is compelled to sue the Forest Service on behalf of the Sitka black-tailed deer, the Islands wolf, and the Tongass National Forests inhabitants who rely on a robust ecosystem for their well being.  

"The Forest Service has misapplied the science and has stonewalled all challenges," Edwards said. "We have sought resolution from the agency for several years. Now the courts are the only recourse."

Download the full complaint filed by Greenpeace and Cascadia Wildlands Project (PDF)