Published on Nov 13, 2013
"Two years ago we were worried about wolves on Prince of Wales Island. Today we're panicked," said the Center's Alaska director Rebecca Noblin. "If the Fish and Wildlife Service doesn't step in, we're looking at losing all of the wolves on Prince of Wales Island, an important and irreplaceable part of the Alexander Archipelago wolf population."
The Center and Greenpeace petitioned to protect this unique Alaska subspecies of gray wolf under the Endangered Species Act in August 2011. The agency is required to make an initial finding within 90 days about whether protections may be warranted — but two years later it has still not acted.
Earlier this fall the Forest Service, in response to an appeal by the Center, Greenpeace and three allied organizations, halted the Big Thorne timber sale in the Tongass National Forest so the agency could reconsider the sale's impact on Alexander Archipelago wolves. The decision was prompted by an expert declaration in the groups' appeal by preeminent Alexander Archipelago wolf biologist and former Alaska state employee Dr. David Person. Person bluntly concluded that "the Big Thorne timber sale, if implemented, represents the final straw that will break the back of a sustainable wolf-deer predator-prey ecological community on Prince of Wales Island."
According to Person, the Big Thorne project will log the last remaining high-quality winter range in the central part of the island for deer — the wolves' primary prey — diminishing the wolf population. Logging elsewhere on the island, much of it on weakly regulated state and private forestland, will have a similar effect. The island's predator-prey system, which includes hunters, will likely collapse; with less meat on the table in rural communities there will be "immense public and political pressure to kill wolves and bears."
"This situation of an impoverished prey-base compounded by the persecution of wolves because of the diminished deer population will put wolves in a double jeopardy of extinction on the island, and the Big Thorne project is a major factor in that reality," said Greenpeace forest campaigner Larry Edwards. "Dr. Person points out that wolf populations on Prince of Wales have declined precipitously and already face the possibility of extinction there."
The wolves on Prince of Wales and its associated islands are genetically distinct from other Tongass wolves. The science shows that Prince of Wales and its associated islands constitutes a significant portion of the Alexander Archipelago wolf's range, meaning that threats to wolves on Prince of Wales Island can necessitate the Endangered Species Act listing of the wolves.
Since the 2011 petition to protect the wolves, the population on Prince of Wales has declined significantly. According to Person, there were 45 to 50 wolves in the Big Thorne timber sale area, in north-central Prince of Wales, in the mid-1990s. By 2013 he was able to find evidence of only six or seven wolves there; he estimated that the population declined by about 80 percent during the winter of 2012-2013 alone. Almost all of those wolves were killed by people, both legally and illegally, and access on the abundant logging roads enables these unsustainable death rates.
The 90-day finding is the first in a series of required decisions to be made by the Fish and Wildlife Service. Such findings simply determine whether the petition presents sufficient information to warrant further consideration and thus require few agency resources.
"There's no reason this finding should take two years. Indeed we've heard it's been finished and sitting in Washington for months," Noblin said. "Politics are what's holding up protection for these very imperiled wolves. The agency has repeatedly promised to make 90-day findings in the absence of litigation, and we've been more than patient in waiting two years, but we can't wait much longer."