September 5, 2023

On August 24, 2023, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service determined that southeast Alaska’s Alexander Archipelago wolves, a rare gray wolf subspecies dependent on old growth forest in the Tongass National Forest, should not be listed as threated or endangered under the Endangered Species Act.  

Defenders and others petitioned the Fish and Wildlife Service to list the wolves in July 2020, citing historic and foreseen habitat loss and fragmentation due to old-growth forest clearcutting; associated roadbuilding; declining deer and other prey populations; unsustainable trapping levels; and inbreeding. Alaska Alexander Archipelago wolves range mostly within the 17 million-acre Tongass National Forest, while additional Alexander Archipelago wolves range in nearby Canada.   

A full description of these wolves and their importance in the forest can be found in this beautiful story map:  The Tongass National Forest, Home to the Alexander Archipelago Wolf.   

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AK_Tongass_AAwolf_Jan1723_CC-BY Defenders of Wildlife 2023
Image Credit
CC-BY Defenders of Wildlife 2023

The region’s complex geography isolates Alaska’s wolves into distinct sections that do not readily mix.  Packs in two populations range through the area’s northern and southern forests with a third group living on Prince of Wales Island, a heavily logged and roaded island in southern Alaska approximately the size of Delaware.   

Fish and Wildlife Service agreed with Defenders that Alaska’s Alexander Archipelago wolves comprise a “distinct population segment” of the overall population, aside from those in Canada. The agency found, however, that Alaska’s wolves are not threatened with extinction in the foreseeable future.  

But notably, Fish and Wildlife Service foresees possible extirpation or local extinction for wolves in the Prince of Wales Island complex within 30 years.  That area is home to 30 percent of the Alaska wolf population and is the single most heavily logged landscape in the Tongass National Forest.  

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2006.03.28 - Alexander Archipelago Wolf Portrait - Alaska - John Hyde-Wild Things Photography
John Hyde/Wild Things Photography

The decision confirms the considerable ongoing threats to a significant portion of Alaska’s Alexander Archipelago wolf population.  Just because Alexander Archipelago wolves may continue to exist in part of their range does not forgive allowing them to disappear from an area the size of Prince of Wales Island.  This analysis further supports the need to curtail future old growth logging in the region, especially on Prince of Wales Island, if we want to see this keystone species survive.  

We fortunately are at a political point in time with favorable policies protecting intact Tongass old growth forest, but that could change with future administrations.  The Biden administration reinstated the Roadless Rule for the Tongass in January 2023.  The rule protecting remaining intact forest had earlier been revoked by the Trump administration in 2020.   

Regardless if wolves are listed, the challenge for the Tongass in the coming decades is to restore habitat and ecological function across the landscape. We are very supportive of the shift in management focus under the well-received Southeast Alaska Sustainability Strategy (SASS).  The SASS expressly shifts the Forest Service’s management focus to restoration, recreation and building community resilience. It includes re-establishment of the Roadless Rule in the Tongass and elimination of large-scale old-growth timber harvesting.  

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2006.03.28 - Alexander Archipelago Wolf on Boulder - Alaska - John Hyde-Wild Things Photography
John Hyde/Wild Things Photography

Fish and wildlife habitat restoration is at the core of the SASS. Unfortunately, hundreds of thousands of acres of forest lands need habitat improvements, especially those that benefit old-growth dependent wildlife. This will require sustained commitment and funding on a scale sufficient to restore healthy wildlife populations as well as curtailing old-growth logging, which destroyed the habitat in the first place.  

Restoring ecological function to our nation’s largest National Forest – rehabilitating habitat for salmon, deer, wolves, and many other species – is a long-term and challenging endeavor. Defenders will continue our efforts to protect and restore wildlife habitat in the Tongass in the years to come.

This blog was written by Sue Libenson, a Defenders of Wildlife Alaska consultant.

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