Conservationists say this season’s unfettered wolf hunt in Alaska’s Tongass National Forest may have left only five animals alive in the area.
(CN) — Alaska is one of the last remnants of the wild in North America.
It is home to a thriving population of wolves, with scientists estimating as many as 11,000 of the animals roam the vast untrammeled territory of Alaska and Northwestern Canada.
But human-wolf conflicts also transpire in areas of Alaska and the U.S. Forest Service allows legal trapping of wolves in certain areas of the state’s extensive national forest system.
On Wednesday, a coalition of wildlife advocacy organizations sent a letter to Tongass National Forest officials expressing concern that the latest legal trapping season in the Alexander Archipelago ended up eradicating 97% of the wolf population there.
The Alexander Archipelago contains nearly 1,100 islands in a 300-mile span in the southeastern reach of Alaska.
During the past trapping season, a record 165 wolves were killed within the management unit on the archipelago, according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. The most recent population estimates pegged the number of wolves in the area at 170, meaning only a handful of the animals likely remain, according to the conservationists.
“This is a shocking number of wolves to have been taken, and once again there has to be concern for the viability of wolves on Prince of Wales Island,” said Nicole Whittington-Evans, Alaska program director for Defenders of Wildlife. “The U.S. Forest Service must engage with the state on wolf management decisions to ensure that this imperiled wolf population and its forest habitat will remain healthy for future generations.”
Prince of Wales Island is the largest island in the archipelago, which is characterized by temperate rain forests, pristine streams and rivers striating the various isles separated by deep fjords and channels.
Whittington-Evans and other advocates fear the legal killings reported by the state fish and wildlife department do not reflect the full toll on the wolf population as illegal killings of the animals have also been significant in past years.
“While wolf management has always been a controversial issue in Southeast Alaska, it simply belies common sense for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game to allow legal trapping of 97% of any game population,” said Meredith Trainor, executive director for the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council.
The advocates are particularly critical of the Forest Service’s decision to lift a quota on wolf trapping for the last season. They argue the wolf population had not recovered enough to allow limitless trapping of the animals in the region.
In 2014, the population of wolves within the management unit dwindled to just 89 animals, down substantially from an estimated 336 animals in 1994. Since the record low in 2014, the Forest Service placed quotas on trapping with the hopes of boosting the number of wolves withing the management unit in the Alexander Archipelago.
Along with quotas, the management plan required in-season monitoring of wolf mortality and required trappers to report wolf deaths within 14 days of the season’s end. That monitoring was suspended last year, and the reporting date was extended to 30 days after the trapping season concluded.
“The unprecedented killing of these imperiled wolves is an appalling and completely predictable result of reckless mismanagement,” said Shaye Wolf, a scientist at the Center for Biological Diversity.
Wolf said that had the quota been in effect like previous years, the number of legal killings of wolves would have been 34.
Historically, the quota was established at 20% of the wolf population and sometimes lower if the population appeared to be threatened.
“It’s difficult to see how state and federal officials can allow hunting and trapping next season without completely wiping out these wolves,” Wolf said. “They have a duty to protect these beautiful animals from extinction.”
A phone call to the U.S. Forest Service was not returned by press time.