An Alexander Archipelago wolf caught on a camera on Prince of Wales Island in 2015. Many resident hunters blame the predators for keeping the deer population low. Conservationists say they are a threatened subspecies of the grey wolf that deserve better protections.

A month-long trapping season has been announced for wolves on and around Prince of Wales Island, fueling ongoing controversy about wolf hunting in the area.  Resident hunters blame the predators for making deer scarce. And state and federal wildlife managers say they are being extra cautious after conservationists threatened to sue for federal protections. 

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The wolf population estimates have fluctuated in recent years. About five years ago the Alaska Department of Fish & Game’s estimate was around 100 of them in a game management area in the lower panhandle.

I know a lot of people on Prince of Wales told us now there are more wolves than that,” regional wildlife supervisor Tom Schumacher said at a November 9 public meeting. “And it’s starting to look like they were probably right.”

His agency recently released estimated there are 386 wolves in the game management areas. That’s a relatively strong 2020 fall population estimate based on DNA and hair samples. The Board of Game recommendations from 2019 call for a population of about half that many: 150-200 wolves.

But Schumacher told a public meeting that new data suggests that goal could be low and would lead to inbreeding which would threaten the species.

So that’s something we also want to be very careful with,” he added.

Therefore the federal and state game managers say they have set a relatively short 31-day harvest from November 15 to allow residents to control the predator population without endangering their health and sustainability. 

Island residents blame wolves for thinning deer herds

The debate over wolves is really about deer. Venison is important to many island residents who say the high cost of store-bought meat makes it vital to feed their families. 

We need deer — people want to eat,” said Mike Warner, calling in from the northern island community of Coffman Cove.

“I do trap wolves, I do hunt wolves,” he continued. “I don’t want the wolves gone. But I want more deer. That’s the only reason I do it.”

Kurt Whitehead, a licensed guide in Klawock, says hunting deer continues to be increasingly difficult for residents.

“I speak for a whole bunch of people, when I say that my subsistence needs are not being met,” he said. “I put my rifle away the last two falls because I can’t even feel right about killing a deer when we have so few.”

He also urged wildlife managers to prohibit hunting female deer to help the herds reproduce and recover. 

A debate over logging vs. predation

Conservationists have argued the legacy of clear cut logging has destroyed deer habitat as second growth forests are too dense for deer to shelter and forage. Several residents pushed back on that idea saying even in areas with old-growth tree stands wolves are plentiful while deer are scarce.

But Katie Rooks, an outfitter who lives and hunts out of Craig says that’s not what she sees.

These three issues: wolves and deer and logging are absolutely, totally tied together,” she said. “And trying to convince folks of that is is a real hard sell and I get that.”

But the reason why deer are more scarce is because their habitat has been “decimated,” she added.

She also suggested that poachers are a problem taking deer of all sizes out of season. She says she’s been out deer hunting every weekend over the past several weeks.

And I’m seeing people going into the woods at dark while I’m coming out,” she said. “I know what those people are doing. And so does everybody on this call.” 

The overall tone of the public hearing was more upbeat than previous ones. Participants like Bryan Moody in Ketchikan applauded game managers for a population estimate that jives closer to what island residents say is realistic.

But he suggested the 31-day harvest could make things riskier for people who commute across the water on a skiff on a time crunch.

Such a quick season really makes it tough trying to be out there in the weather and it just makes it really dangerous,” he said.

ESA petition pending with feds

Conservationists last year petitioned the federal government to list Alexander Archipelago wolves as a distinct subspecies.

The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service says it’s reviewing the filings under the Endangered Species Act even as the Center of Biological Diversity, a national environmental group, has threatened legal action to force the federal government’s hand.

Listing the wolves as a threatened species could trigger federal protections that could restrict hunting and resource development in areas of Southeast Alaska that are part of the wolves traditional range.

State Fish & Game Commissioner Doug Vincent-Lang said he doesn’t think that’s necessary.

“I’m convinced that that, given what we know about wolves on the island, they’re sustainably managed,” he said. “I don’t ever, as the head of Fish and Game think that there’s a need to to list these wolves as as a danger of extinction — I think we have a sustainable policy in place to manage these roles.”

In the end wildlife managers, conservationists and resident hunters will be watching closely to see how many wolves are taken in the 31-day season that closes on December 15. They asked residents to honestly report their harvest and give DNA samples to improve their ability to accurately estimate the wolf population.