The story of the wolves, the island and the ancient forest began long before there were struggling sawmills and endangered species.
But that lost world has a name now: the Tongass National Forest, in southeast Alaska. So do the wolves and the island. They have all become prominent characters in one of the more remote but revealing battles for balance between ecosystems and economies in the 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 rain forest on Earth.”
Those, however, are fighting words.
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 easier 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.
“They’re logging up a storm out there,” said Owen Graham, executive director of the Alaska Forest Assn., an industry group. “They’re trying to get wood ahead of the winter.”
But all that could come to an end if the wolf is declared endangered. Federal regulators could reduce or stop logging or hunting or both if they decide either is putting wolves at risk of extinction.
Conservationists say what they often do in bitter battles involving the Endangered Species Act, whether the fight is over the greater sage grouse and the vast Western sage lands they occupy or salmon and the streams in which they spawn: They want to protect the species and the landscape that sustains it. Climate change has made the battles more complicated, raising tender questions about which species should be priorities and whether they can even be saved. But it also has made the broader goals seem more urgent.
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% of old growth in the Tongass remains intact. “We just need enough to get us through these next 30 years, maybe 2[%] or 3% 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.
Last month, amid the decline and the pending decision, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game allowed subsistence wolf hunting to go forward at its customary September start, setting a quota of nine wolves total. Although that is a low quota, conservationists say there should be no hunting at all this season. Two weeks after the season began, six groups, including Greenpeace and the Center for Biological Diversity, filed an emergency petition asking the Fish and Wildlife Service to list the wolf immediately. The service declined, saying it would decide by the end of the year.
Ryan Scott, a regional supervisor for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s division of wildlife conservation, said wolves are more likely to be killed — “harvested,” in hunting vernacular — after Nov. 15, when hunters are allowed to set traps deep in the woods. He said people use wolf hides for regalia, coats and other purposes.
“There’s nothing easy about harvesting a wolf,” Scott said. “They’re very secretive and want to avoid people at all costs.”