Alaska’s Wolves Face Catastrophe
Southeast Alaska’s isolated wolf population has declined by 60 percent in just one year, dropping from an estimated 221 individuals in 2013 to 89 wolves in 2014, according to the U.S. Forest Service.
Those numbers are already outdated. Another 29 wolves were reportedly killed in the 2014–2015 hunting and trapping season.
The figures were reported in a brief written by U.S. Forest Service officials who worked with Alaska’s Department of Fish and Game to update the region’s wolf population estimates.
The final report is expected to be released by the end of the week, but the early summary has prompted conservationists to call for an expedited endangered species listing for the reclusive subspecies.
“You’re talking about an animal that is so hard for the researchers to find that they’ve only radio collared two in the past two years to study,” said Larry Edwards, forest campaigner with Greenpeace in Sitka, Alaska. “They need protections now, before it’s too late.”
The Alexander Archipelago wolf range includes the entire 500-mile-long, 120-mile-wide Alaskan panhandle, and the animals mostly stay in the dense tree cover provided by the 17-million-acre Tongass National Forest. A majority of the wolves live on Prince of Wales Island. Some scientists believe they could be their own genetically distinct wolf subset.
Instead of trapping and counting the wolves, researchers placed hair trap snags—wood boards with barbed wire attached—in a section of the Tongass to determine the population. The scented boards attract the wolves, which rub against them and leave hair follicles behind. Scientists retrieve the hair and extrapolate how many wolves are in the area based on how many different hair samples are left behind and how frequently the wolves return.
In 1994, an estimated 900 wolves roamed southeast Alaska, and the Prince of Wales Island population was estimated to be 300 to 350. Today, the population is estimated at 60.
The news comes as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service studies whether the Alexander Archipelago wolf should be listed as an endangered species. The agency is expected to make a decision by the end of 2015. If the wolf is listed, stronger protections for its habitat will go into effect, and hunting and trapping will be restricted.
Wayne Owen, a U.S. Forest Service regional director, said a listing would mean more regulatory hurdles for future development and logging operations in the national forest.
So, Why Should You Care? The Center for Biological Diversity and other conservation groups sued the U.S. Forest Service for not adequately protecting the old-growth forests in Tongass from logging. Wolves den in the root systems of 800-year-old western hemlock, Sitka spruce, and Alaska cedar trees. The wolves’ main prey—Sitka black-tailed deer—rely on the trees for shelter from heavy snow during the winter.
“What the report shows is that the habitat is not the issue—the issue right now is the undocumented take,” Owen said. “People are hunting and trapping [the wolves] and not reporting that.”
In 2012, Alaskan game officials reduced the percentage of wolves that could be killed for hunting and trapping from 30 percent of the population each year to 20 percent.
But that hasn’t reversed the decline.
“We definitely see these figures having an impact on the upcoming hunting season,” said Ryan Scott, Alaska Fish and Game’s southeast regional director. “These are estimates based on a sample study area, so you have to take it with a grain of salt; we don’t know if it means declines across the whole range.”
But for Edwards at Greenpeace, waiting is no longer an option.
“We’ve been trying to get this wolf listed as endangered since 1994. There’s no more time to waste,” he said.