Deforestation Taking A Toll On Wildlife
Editor’s Note: Thanks to William Yardley of the LA Times and also to the SitNews in Alaska for their excellent reporting on this topic. We pieced work from both sources for this post. Links to both sources follow.
Wolves in the Tongass National Forest, in southeast Alaska, are making their last stand. They have become the focal point in one of the most remote and revealing battles between ecosystems and economies in the American West.
The wolf is known as the Alexander Archipelago wolf, a relative of the more common gray wolf that roams mainland North America.
The island is Prince of Wales Island, an outpost 55 miles northwest of Ketchikan that, at nearly 2,600 square miles, is home to just 6,000 people and accessible from the mainland only by boat or plane.
The forest is home to giant evergreens — spruce, hemlock and cedar, some 800 years old and more than 200 feet tall.
They are part of the 17-million-acre Tongass, America’s largest national forest. The government calls it “the most intact temperate rainforest on Earth.”
This spring, with the approval of the U.S. Forest Service, loggers began cutting thousands of acres of old-growth trees on Prince of Wales Island in one of the largest and most controversial timber sales in the Tongass in two decades. State and federal officials say the project is essential to the livelihoods of people on the island, where the last remaining large sawmill employs about 50 people.
Yet the wolf population has been in steady decline, and cutting down more trees is expected to pressure them further. The animals den in the roots of very large trees and prey on deer that live beneath the forest’s dense canopy. Roads built for logging cause problems too, splintering habitat and providing easy access for hunters to shoot and trap wolves, sometimes illegally.
Just two decades ago, Prince of Wales was home to about 300 wolves. Now, state officials estimate that as few as 50 remain — about one wolf for every person working in the sawmill.
By the end of this year, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is expected to make a final decision on whether the wolf should be listed as an endangered species. While that decision is pending, logging continues, as does hunting — of both wolves and the deer that are their food supply.
In response to an Alaska Department of Fish and Game report in May that revealed a drastic decline in the wolf population on Prince of Wales and surrounding islands, Audubon Alaska’s science and policy team developed a report, Prince of Wales Wolves, examining the underlying reason for the decline. Audubon Alaska’s science and policy teams concluded large-scale, old-growth, clearcut logging to be the culprit behind the wolf population decline on Prince of Wales and surrounding islands.
“The alarming population decline is most immediately caused by the direct take of wolves from significant poaching and the unsustainable legal take authorized by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, but the underlying cause is extensive logging and roads that initiate many harmful effects, including over-harvest of wolves,” said Melanie Smith, Audubon Alaska’s Director of Conservation Science.
The May 2015 ADFG report said the recent population dropped from 221 wolves to only 89 in the span of a year, before logging on the Big Thorne timber sale – the largest old-growth sale in the Tongass in nearly 20 years – began this summer.
The new Audubon Alaska report points out three ways old-growth logging has and will continue to drastically impact the wolf population on Prince of Wales:
- 4,200 miles of logging roads on Prince of Wales and surrounding islands allow poachers easy access into wolf habitat.
- Clearcutting old-growth trees removes crucial winter habitat for wolves’ main prey, Sitka black-tailed deer, ultimately resulting in a lower deer population.
- The reduced deer numbers, in turn, make some people perceive wolves as competition for hunting, “leading to increased poaching and public pressure to authorize unsustainable legal limits on wolf take to drive down the wolf population.”
According to Audubon Alaska, the bottom line is the decline of wolves is a management problem that desperately needs fixing. The Audubon Alaska report offers three steps necessary for survival of wolves on Prince of Wales Island:
- Halt hunting and trapping until the wolf numbers return to a sustainable level.
- End large-scale old-growth logging on Prince of Wales and the surrounding islands while closing unnecessary roads.
- Protect the wolves in the Prince of Wales region under the Endangered Species Act.
At the heart of the debate in southeast Alaska is the so-called Tongass transition. The Forest Service has cast the plan as an economic and environmental bridge, providing just enough old-growth timber to keep the region’s few remaining sawmills running while slowly shifting the industry toward logging younger trees planted in areas previously cut.
The timber industry in southeast Alaska is a fading fraction of what it was before new federal regulations began limiting old-growth logging in the 1990s. The industry supports fewer than 300 jobs in the region, compared with the 3,500 workers it employed two decades ago. While the industry has plummeted, others, including tourism and fishing, have grown.
The Obama administration’s goal is to continue managing that transition — most recently through the controversial Big Thorne timber sale.
“The Big Thorne decision is a critical step in the Tongass National Forest’s transition to young timber growth management,” Forrest Cole, the forest supervisor, said in 2013 when he announced the Big Thorne Project, the name of the current logging operation on Prince of Wales. “By providing a stable supply of timber to the industry now, we are giving the Forest Service and the industry the breathing space needed to prepare for the transition to young-growth timber.”
In other words, the industry can cut down a limited number of old trees now while it waits for younger ones to grow. Mills on Prince of Wales were built to process larger, older trees. The younger, second-growth trees the Forest Service more readily allows to be logged are shipped to Asia and milled there more cheaply. Although the Forest Service has cast Big Thorne as providing enough old-growth trees to keep the mill busy for six to 10 years, industry leaders say there may be enough timber to last only three or four years. The mill on Prince of Wales, run by Viking Lumber, is viewed as important because it provides year-round work, while logging jobs are seasonal.
“We don’t need a lot of it,” Graham said of the old-growth forest, noting that the Forest Service says 90 percent of old growth in the Tongass remains intact. “We just need enough to get us through these next 30 years, maybe 2-3 percent of it. There’s plenty of room to have a few sawmills with year-round jobs and still have this last old-growth forest out there untouched.”
Conservationists say logging old-growth trees to save sawmills is misguided, putting wildlife and the forest at risk to preserve a few dozen wood products jobs even as broader economic trends pose long-term challenges for the region’s timber industry.
“There’s got to be a way to transition this small number of people and communities in a way that makes sense, instead of just totally trashing this species and this ecosystem,” said Larry Edwards, who works on Alaska issues for Greenpeace and is based in nearby Sitka.
Defining the species and its ecosystem will be an important part of the listing decision. Named for a group of islands, the largest of which is Prince of Wales, the wolf is also found on coastal parts of mainland southeast Alaska and British Columbia, where it is probably not as threatened. Although scientists say the archipelago wolves are genetically different from gray wolves inland, they also say the wolves on Prince of Wales and several of the islands nearby show even further distinctions. The Fish and Wildlife Service could find the wolf endangered across its entire range, only on the islands, or not at all.
Even some scientists who question the depth of the wolves’ genetic distinctiveness do not dispute that the animals on Prince of Wales may be at risk. “If there are only 100 wolves, yes, a population like that could go extinct,” said Matthew Cronin, a professor of animal genetics at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.