Prince of Wales wolf harvest shut down over population concerns

JUNEAU -- Wildlife regulators have imposed an emergency wolf harvest closure on Prince of Wales Island, but groups fearing the wolf population there is already at risk say no harvest should have been allowed in the first place.

Prince of Wales in Southeast is the state's second-largest island, behind Kodiak Island, and its productive timberlands make it the heart of the state's logging industry. The island is in the Forest Service's Craig and Thorne Bay Ranger Districts, and it and some neighboring islands make up most of the state's Game Management Unit 2.

The Forest Service and the Alaska Department of Fish and Game jointly manage the wolf population there, an increasingly contentious task in recent years. Environmental groups blame logging for some of the decline in wolf numbers, along with legal and illegal harvest.

Federal and state regulators Tuesday instituted a hunting and trapping closure, saying they feared that the regulatory year's quota would otherwise be exceeded.

They determined that a harvest level of nine wolves would be sustainable, but when five wolves had been taken an emergency closure was instituted. Wolves can still be taken until Dec. 20 because trappers have five days to get their equipment out of the field.

Also, hunters and trappers don't have to report their harvests immediately, so other wolves may have been taken but not yet reported, said Ryan Scott, regional supervisor for the state's Division of Wildlife Conservation.

"It's likely we're going to get to that nine-wolf quota; that's why we used five" for the closure, he said.

In past years, the harvest has been much higher. In regulatory year 1996, 132 wolves were legally killed. Others may have been poached.

Recent estimates have shown far fewer wolves on Prince of Wales Island than there once were, but Scott said the population can still support a harvest.

"Our job is to manage a sustainable population and sustainable opportunity, and given the apparent decline in wolf numbers in Game Management Unit 2, we set a very conservative harvest level," he said.

But several environmental groups say there shouldn't have been any harvest at all.

"We think that no wolves should have been taken given the low numbers that have been estimated," said Larry Edwards, a Sitka-based forest campaigner for Greenpeace.

When federal and state regulators allowed a harvest this year despite dropping wolf population estimates, Greenpeace and other groups sought to block it.

"We petitioned both the Federal Subsistence Board and the Fish and Game commissioner asking the season be preemptively closed," Edwards said. "They both declined to do that."

Edwards praised the action taken Tuesday, saying the early closure will keep the established harvest level from being exceeded.

Greenpeace and other groups have sought to have the region's Alexander Archipelago wolf listed as protected under the Endangered Species Act, blaming logging for the decline in populations in recent years.

Such a listing could pose a new threat to logging in Southeast, where the controversial Big Thorne sale was intended to boost the industry.

Even though there's been a dramatic reduction in logging during the time wolf populations declined, Edwards cited the accumulated impact of logging on the environment, especially from logging roads fragmenting the Prince of Wales forests.

Scott said he and other regulators are aware of the differing opinions on wolf management, but they are confident there are enough wolves to sustain the nine-wolf quota. Without the closure, the state harvest would have continued to March 31, he said.