For thousands of years the distinctive image of black wolves roaming the snow-covered islands of the Alexander Archipelago has been an iconic part of Southeast Alaska's natural history.
But even in this remote stretch of more than 1,000 islands and glaciated peaks, the Alexander Archipelago wolf has been no match for industrial logging, road building and overharvest.
There are two well-understood reasons that Alexander Archipelago wolves cannot coexist indefinitely with clearcut logging:
• The wolf population is directly tied to the health of the black-tailed deer, which in turn is directly tied to the health of the old-growth forests that offer protection from deep snows and promote a variety of under-story plants.
• As road density increases, so do wolf kills, both legal and illegal. In the Tongass National Forest, logging roads provide access for wolf hunters and trappers. Road density on much of Prince of Wales Island is already beyond sustainable levels.
Yet, the U.S. Forest Service continues to plan big timber sales in key wolf habitats, including the Big Thorne timber sale. That decision, now under appeal, would allow the clear-cutting of more than 6,000 acres on Prince of Wales Island that would accelerate an already sharp decline of the wolf population there.
As we approach the 40th anniversary of the Endangered Species Act next month, the ongoing threat of logging and road-building to the ever-more fragile status of Alexander Archipelago wolves is a stark reminder of the irreplaceable role the Act has played in protecting our nation's most imperiled plants and animals and the ecosystems we share with them.
The first page of the law leaves no doubt about why lawmakers felt it was necessary:
"The Congress finds and declares that ... various species of fish, wildlife, and plants in the United States have been rendered extinct as a consequence of economic growth and development untempered by adequate concern and conservation."
It's clear the Archipelago Alexander wolf now needs the help only the Endangered Species Act can provide. That's why the Center for Biological Diversity, where I work, joined with Greenpeace in filing a petition two years ago asking the Fish and Wildlife Service to award the Act's protections to the wolf.
And it's why earlier this month the two conservation groups reminded the agency that it is now a full two years late on initiating a status review of the wolf.
During those two years the health of the wolf population on Prince of Wales Island has dramatically worsened, mostly due to ongoing large-scale logging of old-growth trees in the Tongass National Forest that began six decades ago.
Earlier this year the Center, Greenpeace and three allied organizations asked the Forest Service to cancel the Big Thorne timber sale. The resulting decision to put the sale on hold came after preeminent Alexander Archipelago wolf biologist Dr. David Person concluded the Big Thorne timber sale would be the "final straw that will break the back of a sustainable wolf-deer predator-prey ecological community on Prince of Wales Island."
By Person's accounts, the estimated wolf population in the area of the Big Thorne sale declined by about 80 percent just last winter.
All the facts point to the same conclusion: to survive, Alexander Archipelago wolves need the protection of the Endangered Species Act, which has prevented the extinction of 99 percent of the plants and animals it protects.
And the unbridled destruction of that natural ecosystem from clear-cutting is clear evidence of why the Endangered Species Act is so important to making sure we get that balance right again once we've disrupted it.
Rebecca Noblin is an Anchorage-based staff attorney and Alaska Director for the Center for Biological Diversity, where her work focuses on protecting imperiled plants and animals.
By REBECCA NOBLIN