Settlement promises Southeast Alaska wolf decision by end of 2015

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will make a decision by the end of next year on whether to give Endangered Species Act protections to wolves dwelling in the coastal rainforest of Southeast Alaska under a legal settlement filed in federal court on Monday.

The settlement would resolve a lawsuit filed in June by conservation groups seeking Endangered Species Act listing for the Alexander Archipelago wolf, an animal the environmentalists say is losing habitat to logging and the construction of logging roads in Tongass National Forest.

The lawsuit was filed in U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., by the Center for Biological Diversity, Greenpeace and an eco-tour company doing business in Southeast Alaska, The Boat Company. The groups filed a petition in August 2011 and followed it with their lawsuit after FWS missed a 12-month deadline for a decision.

In March, FWS issued a 90-day finding, a preliminary action determining that further review was justified to see if protection was warranted.

That finding is evidence that federal regulators are taking a new look at the wolves and their habitat, said FWS spokeswoman Andrea Medeiros. The service is evaluating effects of logging practices on the wolves and their prey, she said.

However, FWS action on the listing question has missed Endangered Species Act deadlines, said Rebecca Noblin, Alaska director of the Center for Biological Diversity.

"They were already two years late, so that's why we filed the lawsuit, because we were afraid that this would go on indefinitely," Noblin said.

The Alexander Archipelago wolves, genetically and geographically distinct from other gray wolves, depend on the old-growth forest habitat found on Southeast Alaska's coastline and islands. Their primary food sources -- deer and salmon – are also concentrated in the old-growth habitat, according to government biologists.

Environmentalists claim logging and logging roads fragment the habitat, and that logging roads give access to illegal hunters targeting deer and wolves.

The fight over Tongass wolves goes back at least two decades.

The first petition for listing was submitted in 1993. FWS determined in 1995 that no Endangered Species Act protections were warranted, citing wolf protections that it expected to result from an updated Tongass management plan issued by the U.S. Forest Service. After a lawsuit filed by the Center for Biological Diversity and other groups resulted in a court order for a new review, the service again rejected listing in 1997.

But the protections that were supposed to have been in the Tongass management plan "never came to pass," Noblin said. "The forest plan continued to give wolves the short end of the stick."

A new looming threat to the wolves, Noblin said, is the pending Big Thorne timber sale given final approval by the U.S. Forest Service last month, a year after the agency issued its record of decision in favor of the sale. The multiyear sale targets "a very critical area for wolves" on Prince of Wales Island where wolf numbers are already declining, she said.

Environmentalists have already sued to overturn the Forest Service's decision to hold the Big Thorne sales. One lawsuit, led by the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council, was filed Aug. 22; a second, filed by Cascadia Wildlands, the Greater Southeast Alaska Conservation Community, the Center for Biological Diversity, Greenpeace and The Boat Company, was filed Aug. 26.

Gov. Sean Parnell announced last week that the state is seeking to intervene to defend the sales.

"Any delay to the Big Thorne project not only prevents the timber industry from contributing to a diverse and robust economy, but also reduces vital funding for schools and roads in our rural areas," Parnell said in a statement then. "It is important that we take an active role in the litigation and represent the interests of Alaska's families and communities."

Yereth Rosen

Yereth Rosen was a reporter for Alaska Dispatch News.