On the Threshold of Extinction. Alexander Archipelago Wolves 2021-2022 Update

Alaska constitutional authority requires the state to manage ALL wildlife using long-term sustained yield principles. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADF&G) has shown time and again that this policy is reserved for ungulate species. This sort of mismanagement, killing high numbers of predator species to boost ungulate populations, can be seen in virtually every game management unit (GMU) in Alaska, however, on Prince of Wales (POW) and the rest of GMU 2 it becomes more conspicuous and serves to eliminate the proliferation of a sustainable distinct population segment of wolf.

Game Management Unit 2 consists of Prince of Wales Island and all islands west of the center lines of Clarence Strait and Kashevarof Passage, south and east of the center lines of Sumner Strait, and east of the longitude of the westernmost point on Warren Island, and all seaward waters and lands within three miles of these coastlines.

The area sampled within GMU 2 for wolf population estimates is about 1,467 square miles (3,800 square kilometers) and is then extrapolated to 3,484 square miles (9,024 square kilometers). Historical data on the presence or absence of wolves shows that only POW, Kosciusko, and Dall islands were sufficiently large to sustain permanent packs of wolves. Kosciusko Island has a land area of approximately 172 square miles, and Dall Island is 254 square miles. Because these three islands are the only islands in the Alexander Archipelago large enough to sustain wolf packs a more accurate extrapolation would be to 1,893 square miles. Hence, this so-called science-based application of extrapolation is off by 1,591 square miles, more than the area sampled for population estimates.

Furthermore, we are concerned that the extrapolations are not calibrated to biodiversity losses which are substantial.

One cannot assume a collection of little islands separated by ocean that has the same total land area similarly supports a pack of wolves. A wolf that just has to trot down the road or across a muskeg to range its territory probably behaves differently than one who has to swim anywhere from 0.5 miles to 2 miles in frigid Alaskan ocean to sustain life. —David K. Person

Looking at the population estimates ADF&G provides it is obvious that the numbers are skewed.

Between 2015 and 2016 the population for the entire area of GMU 2 doubled. This is impossible. An official memorandum issued by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game estimated that in fall 2014, the population numbered only 89 wolves, and data in this report indicated that only 7 to 32 females were left in fall 2014. Further, it is highly unlikely that the number of wolves was bolstered by substantial reproduction. Although recruitment is unknown, ADF&G/Forest Service field research in spring 2015 found only one active wolf den with only one pup in the extensive study area in north-central Prince of Wales Island, although at least a dozen den sites were known at that time to ADF&G and Forest Service researchers. It is also important to note that even back in 2015 USFWS found that the GMU 2 wolf population demonstrated low resilience to stressors, specifically the synergistic effects of wolf “harvest” and timber harvest.

Numerous factors affect reproduction including environmental factors, age, and inbreeding depression; the number of surviving pups per litter during their first winter after birth is strongly correlated with inbreeding coefficients of pups. One can therefore conclude that the Alexander Archipelago wolf population did not double between 2015 and 2016, especially after trapping/hunting brought about a loss of 60 percent of the population in between. Again we see a near doubling of the population between 2018 and 2019 after a reported “harvest” of 25 percent.

By allowing wolf population levels to drop as low as we have seen in recent years on POW, smaller than the minimum viable population, ADF&G and the Forest Service put the wolf at serious risk of entering the extinction vortex. And all while USFWS turns a blind eye.

In 1996 ADF&G was concerned with “sustaining the current postdenning population of 250-300 wolves on Prince of Wales Island.” Now the population objective range of just 150-200 wolves is acceptable.

From The Ecology of Alexander Wolf and Responses to Habitat Change (ADF&G progress report 3. January/1995):

“…Furthermore, total population estimates would be largely irrelevant as a guide for management and would need to be replaced by estimates for each independent subpopulation. Wolf population dynamics will probably be complicated by impending habitat changes. Approximately 80 to 90 percent of the range of the Archipelago wolf lies within the Tongass National Forest, where 800,000 hectares of commercially valuable forest are scheduled to be clearcut under the current forest management plan (USFWS 1991).”

GMU 2 regulations for wolf hunting and trapping this 2021-2022 season, offered prior to releasing a population estimate, have changed somewhat with regards to reporting and sealing. A somewhat different strategy from the disastrous 2019-2020 season, when a record number (165) of wolves were killed.

Wolves taken in Unit 2 (hunting and trapping) must be sequentially numbered or marked by the trapper/hunter, the trapper/hunter must call the ADF&G Ketchikan office at (907) 225-2475 within 7 days of take to report the date and location of take, and all hides must be sealed within 15 days of take.

The “bag limit” numbers, on the other hand are frightening:

The wolf trapping season begins November 15th and ends March 31st, and there is no limit on the number of wolves that may be taken. The wolf hunting season begins December 1st, ends March 31st, and is open to residents and non-residents alike. The “bag limit” is an astonishing 5 wolves.

Add to this already disastrous situation ADF&G no longer adjusts reported “harvest” with unreported and illegal kill which can be as high as 50% of reported take.

It gets worse:

Recent research argues that wolves in SE Alaska are highly inbred, with similar patterns as wolves on Isle Royal, MI. a population founded by just several individuals.

We found that FROH revealed different patterns of inbreeding across three populations of Alexander Archipelago wolves when compared to FH. Estimates of FH revealed no differences between the three populations, while FROH revealed that wolves in the southeast were portion of the study area had the greatest total proportion of the genome in runs of homozygosity, including short runs from inbreeding in distant ancestors. Wolves on POW had more long runs of homozygosity, indicating more frequent mating between individuals with recent common ancestors, likely due to smaller recent historical population size on POW. —Zarn, Katherine, M.S.

It is important to note that the above research utilized data obtained prior to the loss of over 50 percent of the wolf population in GMU-2 during the 2019-2020 season.

This study demonstrates just exactly how poorly the Alexander Archipelago wolves have been “managed.” In case you have forgotten what the outcome of such severe inbreeding looks like, this is the result—the offspring of one of the most highly inbred populations of wolves worldwide with similar genome-wide dynamics as Southeastern Alaskan wolves:

Not only do Alexander Archipelago wolves need protection under the Endangered Species Act but a genetic rescue may be necessary for their persistence. Although this possibility is slim as is noted in The Ecology of Alexander Wolf and Responses to Habitat Change:

“Any subpopulation reduced as a consequence of habitat change may have a low probability of benefiting from a “rescue effect” by migrants from neighboring subpopulations.”

Alexander Archipelago wolves, like all other wolves are a symbol of wilderness and ecological integrity, and have intrinsic value. 700–1,000 islands wolves lived in Southeast Alaska in 1995. Less than 20 years later, the population plummeted to just 89 wolves (though that estimate was made prior to the 2014/2015 hunting and trapping season, wherein 29 animals were known to be taken, further reducing the likely population). The population suffered a 75 percent loss over the 1994 to 2014 time period. Today the struggles for the wolf are numerous.

Like the wolf, the Tongass National Forest on POW has suffered tremendous losses. Extensive old-growth logging resulted in a 94 percent reduction in contiguous high-volume old-growth forests between 1954 and 2004 on northern POW; vigorous logging projects continue to this day.

Logging old-growth forests on Prince of Wales island has had devastating impacts on biodiversity and wildlife habitats and reduced the invaluable benefits that these forests provide. The destruction of these forests is criminal. Some of these magnificent trees are —were— over 800 years old, primarily comprised of western red cedar, sitka spruce, and western hemlock. Gone. Reduced to anything from pulp to pianos.

It is possible that Alexander Archipelago wolves colonized Southeast Alaska from a southern Pleistocene refugium coinciding with the retreat of glacial ice some 12,000 years ago, thereafter living in harmony with nature and the natives of Southeast Alaska. The ancestral home of Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes, wolves persisted alongside a people who were the original occupants and guardians of the land and sea, a people who had reverence and respect for all life.

Criminal. The decimation of these forests, the misery inflicted upon our wildlife on Prince of Wales Island, is just plain criminal.

We will be providing a tweetsheet within a week or so, our aim is to encourage the Department of Interior to provide emergency protections for the wolves of the Alexander Archipelago Islands in Alaska. We believe this unique wolf population cannot afford time spent on yet another long status review. We hope that you will join us, and appreciate your assistance. For those who are not on Twitter we will also provide links for posting comments on relevant Facebook pages.

Background

The USFWS has recognized the Alexander Archipelago wolf (Canis lupus ligoni) as a subspecies of the gray wolf and as a listable entity, and belatedly announced that wolves in Southeast Alaska may warrant protection under the Endangered Species Act and started a year-long status review. The decision comes in response to a July 2020 petition. Because of this year long delay conservation groups filed an intent to sue in order to hasten federal protections.

The rare gray wolf subspecies, which inhabits the coastal rainforests of Southeast Alaska and British Columbia, faces numerous threats. Legal trapping recently killed more than half the wolves in one key population on Prince of Wales Island in Southeast Alaska. The Trump administration opened hundreds of thousands of acres of the wolf’s forest habitat to clearcut logging. And genetic evidence indicates the Prince of Wales population is in danger from high levels of inbreeding.

Petitioners (Center for Biological Diversity, Alaska Rainforest Defenders and Defenders of Wildlife) have again requested that the USFWS evaluate the Alexander Archipelago wolf subspecies for listing where Southeast Alaska constitutes a significant portion of the range. Clearly, the best-available science demonstrates that the Alexander Archipelago wolf is threatened or endangered throughout all or a significant portion of its range.

“Threats to the continued existence of these unique wolves have been worsening for many years, in terms both of habitat loss and mismanagement by the state and federal agencies that are responsible for maintaining the populations at a healthy size.” — Larry Edwards Alaska Rainforest Defenders.

The Fish and Wildlife Service determined that protecting Alexander Archipelago wolves may be warranted based on logging and road development, illegal and legal trapping and hunting, the effects of climate change and loss of genetic diversity and inbreeding.

Clearcut logging on the Tongass National Forest and adjacent state and private lands destroys and fragments the old-growth forest habitat that wolves rely on for raising pups and hunting their primary prey, Sitka black-tailed deer. Road construction for logging operations also allows increased access for trappers and hunters.

In recent years the U.S. Forest Service authorized intensive old-growth logging and road building concentrated in the wolves’ most important habitat, including the largest timber sale in any national forest in 30 years. That’s despite direction in the Tongass land management plan to move away from old-growth logging. A federal court opinion vacated this logging plan across 1.8 million acre project area on Prince of Wales Island

In 2020 the Trump administration increased threats to the wolves by exempting the Tongass National Forest from the roadless area conservation rule, opening 168,000 additional acres of irreplaceable old-growth forest to clearcut logging. Conservation groups sued to restore those protections.

Earlier this year the Biden administration announced the Forest Service will restore roadless protections to the Tongass and cancel three major timber projects. Deadlines for the implementation of these new Forest Service initiatives, however, have not been announced.

But the wolf’s low numbers, mismanagement of trapping, damage from past national forest logging, continued intensive logging of old forests on state lands and evidence of inbreeding means the animal is verymuch threatened with extinction.

On Prince of Wales Island, which harbors a focal population of these wolves, an unprecedented 165 wolves were killed during the 2019-2020 trapping season. This alarming and abhorrent slaughter occurred after state and federal wildlife managers ignored the recommendations of their wolf management program and eliminated limits on the number of wolves that could be trapped or hunted. State and federal officials authorized a 21-day trapping season on Prince Wales Island during November and December 2020 with no limit on wolf killing. The season’s death toll was 68 wolves, the second-highest level of legal killing since 2005.

In 2016 the Fish and Wildlife Service denied Endangered Species Act protection to Alexander Archipelago wolves largely based on the claim that wolf populations in British Columbia were stable, while acknowledging the more precarious status of wolves in Southeast Alaska.

Threats to the wolves in Alaska have escalated since 2016 because of inadequate federal and state management, the Trump administration’s elimination of protections across much of their habitat, and continued logging and road building on multiple forestland ownerships.

Protection under the Act would require state and federal agencies to better manage threats to the wolves, take measures that protect their habitat and limit hunting and trapping.

All posts regarding the plight of Alexander Archipelago wolves can be found here.