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By NICK BOWMAN
Daily News Staff Writer
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is open to regulations protecting the Alexander Archipelago wolves on Prince of Wales Island, which could mean restrictions on hunting, trapping and logging on the island.
While wolf harvests on POW are managed under Alaska Department of Fish and Game and federal subsistence regulations, the U.S. Forest Service considers wildlife populations in its timber sales, and federal Fish and Wildlife considers petitions to list species as threatened or endangered.
Just such a petition was filed by Greenpeace and the Center for Biological Diversity in August 2011, which requested the Alexander Archipelago wolf be listed as threatened by pressure from humans, including loss of habitat, hunting and trapping.
Similar petitions were filed in the 1990s, when trapping activity on the island was much more intense than it is today, but never resulted in a listing under the Endangered Species Act.
A public comment period was opened after the Fish and Wildlife Service found merit in the environmental groups’ petition. That period ends May 30.
Along with public comment, Fish and Wildlife will collect data on wolves from the field in order to gauge their numbers and the stress on the population, but funding for that research has to come directly from the U.S. Congress and securing it can take years.
Meanwhile, Alaska Fish and Game will continue research into wolf populations in an attempt to show that listing the wolves as threatened isn’t necessary.
The state also is likely to reduce wolf harvests from 60 to 30 or 40 wolves each year through the next few years, according to Boyd Porter, the Ketchikan area wildlife management biologist for Fish and Game.
The department also is likely to broaden the definition for when an animal is considered killed, according to Doug Larsen, regional supervisor for Fish and Game’s Division of Wildlife Conservation.
Larsen said on Friday that hunters and trappers who "get blood" — if a hunter wounds an animal or a trapper discovers blood in the trap the animal is to be reported killed.
He said the idea was drawn from black and brown bear hunting regulations. If a hunter wounds an animal and he or she is unable to locate it, the animal is considered killed.
A meeting between the three agencies and residents of Prince of Wales was held in Craig at the beginning of April.
POW residents — many of them trappers — said that the population of wolves was down, but not enough to warrant a listing, a position shared by Alaska Fish and Game.
Representatives from federal and state agencies said they believed there are fewer wolves on Prince of Wales than there were 10 or 20 years ago, but didn’t have a handle on just how many are on the island.
Steve Brockmann, of the Fish and Wildlife Service’s Juneau office, said the service isn’t eager to take management of the wolves from the state, but would if they’re found to be threatened.
"It’s our responsibility, and we’ll do it if we have to," Brockmann told the audience.
He said after the meeting that "arbitrarily reducing" the number of wolves harvested each year "won’t work," and on its own wouldn’t prevent the wolf from being listed as threatened.
The reduction must be based on the total population, he said.
The total population if Archipelago wolves on Prince of Wales is up for debate. Regulators don’t know how many wolves are in the wild, as recent research isn’t available.
The Alaska Department of Fish and Game used GPS collars to track a few dozen wolves to estimate how many are killed or go missing. Much of that information was collected by biologist Dave Person in the 1990s and early 2000s.
Fish and Game has used hair boards, or snares, that catch the hair of wolves for DNA testing for the past three years. The department will collect DNA samples for another three years to get a measure of the island’s population.
"As you continue to get samples, at some point you start to recapture animals you know," Porter said. "The more animals you capture and recapture, the estimate of the animals out there gets better and better."
Bag limits are based on a percentage of the total population of the island. Larsen said at the April meeting that 40 percent of the total population can die each year and the group will remain sustainable.
With a natural mortality of 10 percent, that leaves 30 percent of the population available for hunting and trapping.
But 30 percent of how many wolves? 200? 100? It’s a question left to answer.
Previous wolf harvests have been based on a preseason population of more than 200 wolves, but now regulators are questioning that estimate.
Brockmann and Larsen said that the number of unreported harvests could be equal to the number of those reported. If so, well more than 40 percent of the wolf population is being killed each year.
Most people who attended the meeting were open to preempting a federal Endangered Species Act listing with tighter state control, but trappers objected to the notion that a huge number of wolves are being killed illegally each year.
One audience member said that wolf hides that aren’t officially sealed by the state are worthless because they can’t be legitimately sold.
Another said trappers don’t do it for the money in the first place — as large males are the only hides that sell well, and they’re the most difficult to trap.
Elijah Winrod, a trapper and a 20-year resident of the island, said strict regulation isn’t necessary because of wolves’ prolific reproduction. He put the preseason population of wolves at close to 200.
Brockmann said that while wolves have a high rate of reproduction, the fear is that it’s not high enough to handle the pressure from humans.
Porter said the sticking point with the Archipelago wolf is its isolation. There isn’t evidence that wolves move from mainland North America to the Alexander Archipelago and successfully reproduce, he said.
The population has been isolated since the last Ice Age, Porter said, which makes them genetically distinct from other populations of wolves in North America and a more likely candidate for protection.
The Big Thorne timber sale, managed by the Forest Service, could be affected, along with the rest of the logging on Prince of Wales, by a federal listing for the Archipelago wolf.
The density of roads on the island and the loss of habitat from logging have a negative effect on wolf populations. Timber sales mean more roads and less habitat.
However, the Forest Service reviews the effect of sales on wildlife populations before they’re offered.
Brian Logan, wildlife program leader for the Tongass National Forest, said at the meeting that the Forest Service remained confident that the Big Thorne sale could go ahead without hamstringing island wolves.
Logan said the Forest Service was confident that its network of old growth reserves on the island is enough to sustain populations of wolves and their main food source, the Sitka black-tailed deer.
The Big Thorne sale would put 6,186 acres of old-growth forest and 2,299 acres of young growth on the market for loggers, according to the Forest Service.
Bob Claus, forest program director of the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council, which appealed the Big Thorne sale, attended the Prince of Wales meeting. He said he wasn’t against the sale as an idea, but rather the size.
A reduction in the sale’s size, paired with restrictions on wolf harvests, could make Big Thorne acceptable to the Conservation Council, he said.
The Alaska Wilderness League, Audubon Alaska, Greenpeace, Trout Unlimited, Rebecca Knight and Dick Artley also have appealed Big Thorne.