A big day for an embattled wolf

by Larry Edwards

March 28, 2014

The Alexander Archipelago wolf is a fascinating top predator, unique to the coastal temperate rainforest of Southeast Alaska. Today it came a step closer to being listed as threatened or endangered by the US Fish & Wildlife Service, a result of our work.We believe listing the species is justified and necessary.

[ Update 3/21/14: Public comments on listing the wolf are due on May 30. I have put up a new post where you can read about how to comment and see a video presentation by a scientist who has studied these wolves for over two decades. Will you help? ]

The behavior and genetics of this gray wolf subspecies are distinctive from other North American wolves, a consequence of being geographically isolated from them for thousands of years by ocean and an ice-capped mountain range. This islands wolf lives mostly on deer, supplemented in summer by returning salmon. Its dens are tunnels and chambers within massive root systems of ancient Sitka spruce, cedars, and hemlocks.

The Archipelago wolf has not been isolated from industrial-scale logging, which began here 60 years ago. Nearly a million acres of clearcuts and 5,000 miles of logging roads have fragmented much of the ecosystem in the Tongass National Forest and its adjacent private and state-owned forestlands.

As the forests have declined, so have the wolves and the deer they depend on.

Today the US Fish & Wildlife Service announced its preliminary finding that an Endangered Species Act (ESA) listing may be warranted for the Alexander Archipelago wolf. This 90-day finding 2 years overdue stems from a petition-to-list filed by Greenpeace and the Center for Biological Diversity in 2011. If youre interested in going into a bit more depth, that science-based document explains the species ecology and the threats confronting it (its a pdf file.)

Now the agency will host a 60-day public comment period, which will end May 30. After that, a thorough status review of the wolf will be undertaken.

This will lead to a decision to list the species or not. The ESA requires it be made within one year.

Wolves under siege

The Archipelago wolf is vulnerable in three major ways.

The first is that the population of its primary prey (Sitka black-tailed deer), which is caused by the cumulative loss of the deers old-growth forest winter range. Canopies of big, old-growth trees keep a lot of snow from falling to the ground. This affords deer greater mobility and access to on-ground forage, which helps them survive harsh Alaskan winters.

Another vulnerability is high wolf mortality both illegal and legal hunting and trapping, a result of the high density of both open and closed logging roads. Recent data for one important area indicates an 80% loss of wolves there last year, overwhelmingly by this cause.

That is far beyond what a wolf population can sustain, yet the Forest Service and other forestland owners continue to build more roads.

The third vulnerability is the loss in the number of suitable denning sites. Some of those that still exist are threatened by nearby development activity.

A recent declaration by the foremost Archipelago wolf expert, Dr. David Person, explains the dire situation on Prince of Wales Island, which has the sub-species main population. In his 2010 field work, he found that there was usually no wolf activity at den sites, and that the lack of evidence like scats to determine population size wasnt even subtle.

Persons declaration is an exhibit to our administrative appeal of last years decision by the US Forest Service to proceed with the Big Thorne timber sale on Prince of Wales.

What the positive 90-Day Finding means

With our petition now officially recognized as having merit by the Fish & Wildlife Service, our arguments both in comments and in court will have increased force against damaging logging projects. But these are only short-term considerations.

Ultimately what matters is the final listing decision. We will press for that to be made within a year, as the ESA requires. A listing of the species, if made, would dramatically change the management of the Tongass National Forest and other forestlands in the region. This would benefit not only wolves, but the whole ecosystem, its many kinds of animals, and the many harmless uses that people make of the forest.

You can help. Make thoughtful comment, with instructions for submission that we will post on our website soon. Well be sure to keep you in the loop.

Photo of Alexander Archipelago wolf(c)WildThingsPhotography

Larry Edwards

By Larry Edwards

Larry is a former forest campaigner based in Greenpeace's Alaska field office in Sitka. He has been featured in Alaska Public Radio, The Examiner, AP, and Sit News.

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