Update — Nov. 9, 5:02 p.m.
Juneau Superior Court Judge Daniel Schally rejected filings for an injunction that would block the three-week trapping season that opens on Nov. 15.
Original story — Nov. 9, 10:31 a.m.
Federal and state wildlife managers announced on Friday they would extend the wolf harvest on Prince of Wales Island. That’s following a contentious hearing where island resident hunters said too many wolves were preying on deer.
This comes as conservationists have filed a lawsuit to stop the controversial harvest following an unprecedented number of wolves legally killed last season.
Tongass National Forest Supervisor Earl Stewart opened an Oct. 29 telephone hearing with about 100 people on the line.
“It’s really important that we hear from rural users on the importance of wolf to game management unit 2 and to those users that rely on that resource,” Stewart said.
He got an earful. One by one, resident hunters and trappers told wildlife managers they were under-counting wolves: state and federal officials recently released their fall 2019 estimate of 316 wolves in and around Prince of Wales.
“These wolves definitely are far from endangered on this island — far from it,” Joshua Peavey testified. “It’s the worst I’ve ever seen. It’s worse anybody’s ever seen. I just want to know how you guys come up with the numbers. Because it’s all B.S.”
Other wolf trappers were more tactful.
“I don’t want you guys to think that we all want them all to die because we don’t you know, they’re really cool animals,” said Samuel Sawyer, who identified himself as lifelong island resident. But he says hunters like him are finding venison scarce — and it’s not for sport.
“I can’t go to the grocery store and pay $8.99 for a pound of hamburger — it’s just unrealistic,” Sawyer said. “And then we have to worry about the wolf killing all the deer then what are we supposed to do?”
Federal and state officials apparently listened. On Nov. 6, they announced they’d extend the trapping season by five days for a full three-week opportunity.
Alaska Department of Fish & Game’s regional wildlife supervisor Tom Schumacher said on Friday that managers took another look at their data. And they feel trapping could be safely allowed from Nov. 15 to Dec. 5.
“It’ll allow a little bit more opportunity,” Schumacher told CoastAlaska. “But we think that that will also result in a sustainable harvest. And we’ll be able to keep our wolf population within our harvest or a management objective of 150 to 200 wolves in the fall population.”
The state is also agreeing to open up a five-day hunting period with a five-wolf bag limit.
Trapping is more controversial because the season has no bag limits, and it’s more efficient. That’s a key piece of context in the wolf debate. Last year, wildlife managers dropped the season quotas. And after eliminating the hard limits, residents took a record 165 wolves in the area — mostly by trapping.
Alaska Department of Fish and Game Commissioner Doug Vincent-Lang told residents on the Oct. 29 call that level of killing is unsustainable, but there was no cause for alarm.
“We remain convinced that the Southeast Alaska wolf population remains healthy,” the commissioner said, “and that the population is not threatened with extinction now or in the foreseeable future on our management approach.”
Conservationists have already filed a lawsuit accusing the state of violating its constitutional mandate to keep wildlife sustainable. A judge denied a temporary restraining order but has set a hearing just six days before the trapping season is set to open.
“Adding season length to the intended two weeks makes matters worse in our view,” said former Board of Game member Joel Bennett of Juneau, a and a plaintiff in the lawsuit. “They are playing Russian roulette with Prince of Wales wolves. How can they control the harvest to prevent what happened last season.”
Separately, the Center for Biological Diversity has filed a petition — the third since the 1990s — seeking federal protections for Southeast’s subspecies of grey wolves.
The center’s Oakland, California-based biologist Shaye Wolfe testified that commercial logging’s destruction of habitat, not wolves, are to blame for the scarcity of deer.
“The key reason why deer are declining in Prince of Wales is because of the past legacy and ongoing legacy of clearcut logging of old growth forest,” she said.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has already blown past a 90-day deadline to respond to the petition. But state officials say they expect it to formally respond early next year.
If the feds add protections for wolves, it’ll greatly change how they’re managed. Hunting and trapping would be greatly restricted. And almost all development on federal lands would have to take into account potential impacts to the wolves’ critical habitat.