Wolves of the Alexander Archipelago
[by Emily Mount]
CRUNCH, CRUNCH, SPLASH, CRUNCH!” I hear them before I see them as I paddle my kayak around a rocky point in Glacier Bay National Park: 12 wolves feasting on a bed of mussels at low tide. They smack their lips, tearing bivalves from the rocks, crushing them in a few snaps, and swallowing them shell and all. I stop paddling and drift toward the wolfstrewn beach. A wolf sighting requires good luck; seeing an entire pack is exceptional. These wolves are symbolic of southeast Alaska, a unique subspecies currently embroiled in controversy.
Alexander Archipelago wolves are a genetically distinct subspecies of North America’s gray wolf. About 12,000 years ago, the Pleistocene ice sheet retreated, allowing wolves to migrate into southeast Alaska (most of which is also known as the Alexander Archipelago) and establish a viable population. is powerhouse of muscle, fur, and teeth sits firmly atop the food chain, consuming Sitka black-tailed deer, moose, mountain goats, salmon, and scavenged marine mammals. Today, Alexander Archipelago wolves face habitat loss as logging operations clear forests. In the 1950s, large-scale industrial logging began in Tongass National Forest.
“From my kayak, I watch a wolf trot up the beach and settle into the grass. It tilts its nose to the clouds and lets out a long, lilting note. From the forest, another wolf answers.”
The Tongass is almost 17 million acres and encompasses over 80 percent of Southeast. Ancient spruce and hemlock fed two mills, which exported pulp to Asia for products such as rayon and cellophane. In the 1990s, public pressure forced Tongass forestry practices to change: the pulp mills closed, but clear-cutting continues.
Prince of Wales Island is home to about one-third of Southeast’s wolves. It’s also a focal point of the ongoing struggle between proponents of old growth logging and conservation groups. Here, habitat loss, wildlife, and humans come into conflict.
Deer rely heavily upon ancient forest to provide food and wintertime shelter. Logging eliminates that habitat, and maturing second-growth stands are not a suitable substitute. This causes deer populations to decline, especially during harsh winters. Some hunters blame predators for low deer numbers, and they hunt and trap wolves (both legally and illegally) to harvest more deer for human consumption.
Conservation groups, concerned about the future of the wolves and ecosystem, petitioned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 1993 and 2011 to consider Prince of Wales wolves for listing as threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act. Both petitions were rejected as unwarranted.
Gretchen Roffler, wildlife research biologist for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, has worked with Alexander Archipelago wolves since 2014. On Prince of Wales, she collars and tracks wolves and snags wolf hair for DNA analysis to estimate the wolf population. Two decades of data from Prince of Wales and the surrounding islands show a population high of 356 wolves in 1994 and a critical low of 89 in 2013. Roffler’s most recent estimate is 231 wolves. “From what we know by going out and collecting data from the population and then estimating abundance, we’re fairly confident that the population right now is within normal range,” she states.
Even though the population is rebounding, some people are still concerned. Larry Edwards, a southeast Alaska environmental advocate for the past 40 years, was involved in the second petition. “The wolf population on Prince of Wales is volatile,” he notes. “It’s subject to many factors, including how the trapping seasons are managed, how winters affect deer, and how much bear predation on deer there is in a given year. When the wolf population gets suppressed for one reason or another to low numbers, you can have a genetic bottleneck. And that can lead to problems farther down the line that could extirpate the species on the island.”
Roffler hopes to understand the depth of this problem by using genomic methods to estimate inbreeding of Prince of Wales wolves and genetic connectivity with nearby populations. “People all care greatly about wolves,” Roffler says. “But they seem to either love them or hate them. This is part of a long history that has occurred all over the world where people view wolves as competition. That continues to play out to this day on Prince of Wales.”
From my kayak, I watch a wolf trot up the beach and settle into the grass. It tilts its nose to the clouds and lets out a long, lilting note. From the forest, another wolf answers. A few wolves wander up the beach to join the chorus. This pack is protected as long as it remains within the national park, but my thoughts wander to others in the Tongass.
Choices made now will determine the fate of this subspecies, and whether future generations will be able to hear wolves howl in the wild.