JUNEAU, Alaska― Conservation groups today called on the U.S. Forest Service to take immediate steps to protect Alexander Archipelago wolves on Prince of Wales Island in Alaska’s Tongass National Forest following word that 97 percent of the most recent estimated population was killed this past trapping season.
In their letter the groups also urged the agency to implement other wolf-conservation measures established in a 2017 habitat-management program developed specifically to protect this vulnerable population.
“This is a shocking number of wolves to have been taken, and once again there has to be concern for the viability of wolves on Prince of Wales Island,” said Nicole Whittington-Evans, Alaska program director for Defenders of Wildlife. “The U.S. Forest Service must engage with the state on wolf management decisions to ensure that this imperiled wolf population and its forest habitat will remain healthy for future generations,”
Today’s letter follows a March 5 announcement from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game that 165 wolves out of an estimated population of 170 (as of fall 2018) were legally trapped during the 2019-2020 season in the game management unit that includes Prince of Wales and surrounding islands. This record number of killings is in addition to any illegal killing, which is known to have been significant in the past.
“While wolf management has always been a controversial issue in Southeast Alaska, it simply belies common sense for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game to allow legal trapping of 97% of any game population,” said Meredith Trainor, executive director for the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council. “With this letter we’re calling on the U.S. Forest Service to take a larger role in, at a minimum, ensuring sustainably managed wolf populations on Prince of Wales Island by partnering with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game to immediately return to the quota system.
The department lifted the wolf-trapping quota for this past season despite the fact that the population had only recently rebounded after falling to a historic low in 2014. Had the quota been in place, the legal trapping limit would have been 34 wolves.
“The unprecedented killing of these imperiled wolves is an appalling and completely predictable result of reckless mismanagement,” said Shaye Wolf, a scientist at the Center for Biological Diversity. “It’s difficult to see how state and federal officials can allow hunting and trapping next season without completely wiping out these wolves. They have a duty to protect these beautiful animals from extinction.”
In previous years the quota had been set at about 20% of the population estimate, and sometimes significantly lower than that due to conservation concern for the population. The Tongass Land Management Plan directs the U.S. Forest Service to “assist in managing legal and illegal wolf mortality rates to within sustainable levels” and to “develop and implement a wolf habitat management program in conjunction with” the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. The Forest Service finalized that plan in 2017.
Alexander Archipelago wolves and their rainforest home are under continued threats from industrial logging, road building, unsustainable trapping and hunting and large-scale habitat loss.
The population of wolves in the management unit decreased from an estimated mean of 336 animals in 1994 to just 89 animals in 2014.
Concern about the animal’s survival led the Forest Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Alaska Department of Fish and Game to develop a Wolf Habitat Management Program. The program identified the key components of wolf management on Prince of Wales and surrounding islands as deer habitat, roads, mortality, den management and human dimensions. The program provided key recommendations in each category.
This interagency group considered quotas to be an important management tool in regulating mortality, reflected in these management recommendations:
● Maintain flexibility in quota management to alter quotas on a yearly basis to ensure wolf population and harvest sustainability;
● Continue to incorporate unreported human-caused mortality rates in developing wolf-harvest quotas using best available data;
● Monitor the wolf population to help evaluate program effectiveness;
● Prioritize and increase enforcement in pre-season and beginning of season, increase enforcement capabilities, and prioritize wolf-trapping season patrols in the game management unit.
Following implementation of the wolf-management program, the population recovered from a low mean estimate of 89 wolves in fall 2014 to 231 animals in fall 2016 and 225 wolves in fall 2017 before dropping to a mean estimate of 170 animals in fall 2018. The population estimates take several months to develop, so the fall 2019 estimate will not be available until August or September.
In addition to eliminating the wolf quota, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game also removed in-season monitoring of wolf mortality in the management unit. The department gave trappers more time to bring killed wolves to state officials for tagging and counting. The new deadline is up to 30 days after the trapping season ends, instead of 14 days after the animals are killed.