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Should the Feds list an Alaska wolf as threatened or endangered?

Patti Epler

Add another Alaska critter to the list of animals that environmental groups are trying to save -- the Alexander Archipelago wolf.

The subspecies of gray wolf is found only in the old-growth forests of Southeast Alaska. And that puts them in conflict with logging in the Tongass National Forest, the nation's largest forest that has been heavily logged in the past few decades.

Now, the Center for Biological Diversity and Greenpeace have filed a 103-page petition with the the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service asking that the wolf be declared either threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act and that Prince of Wales Island and others be designated as critical habitat.

Greenpeace forest campaigner Larry Edwards called the wolf "a symbol of America's rapidly dwindling wilderness" and said there is "clear evidence" the wolf is in trouble.

That trouble stems from clearcutting and over-logging of the old-growth forests where the Alexander Archipelago wolf dens in the root systems of the giant trees, according to the environmental groups.

The wolf depends on the Sitka black-tailed deer for food, but the deer also have been dwindling due to logging, the groups said.

Logging operations in the Tongass also mean more roads and easier access for hunters and trappers, who are also killing off the wolves -- as many as half of them illegally, the conservationists said.

Rebecca Noblin, Alaska director of the Center for Biological Diversity, said the U.S. Forest Service could do a lot to save the wolves by not permitting new roads and ending "unsustainable" logging practices. She accused the federal government of "kowtowing" to the timber industry.

Federal legislation that would give Sealaska Corp. more old-growth acreage in Southeast Alaska also might factor into any decision on whether the wolves should be listed as threatened or endangered.

The legislation would allow Sealaska to pick up another 81,500 acres outside the area already allotted under the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act. The acreage would be prime timber lands, the area also used by the wolves.

Noblin said more logging of the productive old-growth forest would impact the habitat. If the wolf was to be listed before the land selection went through then the wolf's status would trigger consultation between agencies with an eye toward whether any sort of land exchange would jeopardize the wolves' continued existence, she said.

Even the passing of the legislation would likely have an effect on the Fish and Wildlife Service's decision to list or not list the wolves, she said, because the agency would have to consider what the loss of habitat in that acreage would do to the wolves. "If we were looking at a big chunk of land being logged, that would factor into the ESA decision," she said.

The Sealaska legislation is pending in the U.S. House of Representatives. Company officials have said it needs to pass this year or the company will have to start curtailing logging operations and that will result in the loss of hundreds of jobs.

The Alexander Archipelago wolf joins other Alaska wildlife -- polar bears, beluga whales, walrus, ring seals -- that conservationists are fighting to save through federal laws designed to protect them from loss of habitat caused by development, climate change and other factors.

Contact Patti Epler at patti(at)alaskadispatch.com