By Gabe Scott
Cascadia Wildlands filed a lawsuit today to stop the U.S. Forest Service’s Big Thorne timber project on Prince of Wales Island in southeast Alaska. Big Thorne is by far the largest logging project on the Tongass National Forest since the region’s two pulp mills closed about 20 years ago.
The lawsuit argues the federal government failed to heed research by Dr. David K. Person, a former Alaska Fish and Game wildlife biologist and foremost expert on Alexander Archipelago wolves. A formal declaration by Person, written after he retired and filed with Cascadia’s appeal of the project, says that Big Thorne would be the final straw to “break the back” of the ecosystem dynamic between the wolves, deer and hunters on the island.
We’ve joined forces with Greater Southeast Alaska Conservation Council, Greenpeace, Center for Biological Diversity, and The Boat Company to file the suit, and are jointly represented by CRAG law center.
The legal outrage at the heart of this lawsuit is political suppression of science by the Forest Service and Parnell administration. Dr. Person first circulated his concerns within the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, where he worked at the time. The comments were buried by the agency and by higher-level state bureaucrats to implement Governor Parnell’s “one voice” policy, which suppresses troublesome science in order to maximize logging.
Dr. Person’s strongly held concerns were discovered through public records requests. Then, after confronting the Forest Service with the material in comments on the Big Thorne draft environmental impact statement, the agency simply ignored it.
In this case, that gambit by the two governments backfired. The declaration, prepared after Person quit ADF&G, was filed by the plaintiffs in an administrative appeal of the August 2013 Big Thorne decision. The project was put on hold for nearly a year while Dr. Person’s declaration was reviewed.
A special six-person Wolf Task Force with personnel from the Forest Service, ADF&G and the federal Fish and Wildlife Service, reviewed the declaration. Opinion was evenly split. This is not surprising, given political pressure and the state’s one-voice policy. Breaking ranks was a Forest Service biologist who has done wolf research on the island.
All of which fits the “one-voice” pattern that has been embraced so corrosively by our last three Governors. It starts when a field-level scientist with the State ADF&G discovers a fact or makes a finding that implies concern for some development project. They write it up. Politically appointed bureaucrats review the biologists’ statements, cherry-picking the facts that support development and eliminating statements that raise concerns. The lower-level biologist is not allowed to talk with people outside the agency.
The Alexander Archipelago Wolf
The wolf population on Prince of Wales looks to have dropped very sharply in recent years. The US Fish & Wildlife Service is currently contemplating their 12-month finding on a petition to list the wolves under the ESA.
Nobody has a firm count on the number of wolves, but the basic dynamic is understood. Wolves on POW face two problems: (1) a legacy of old clearcuts, that are now thickets devoid of habitat value; and (2) unsustainably high hunting and trapping levels, spawned by the vast network of logging roads.
The habitat problem is well-recognized by scientists; we are suing the Forest Service to force their land managers to actually apply that knowledge.
Without enough old-growth winter habitat in the forest for shelter, deer populations plummet during deep-snow winters. Without enough deer to go around, wolves and hunters compete with one another for not-enough-deer. That never ends well for the wolf. Hunters lose out too, because without the big-tree habitat the deer still starve in winter.
POW is the most heavily logged part of southeast Alaska, and what remains is increasingly important to wildlife. The project would cut more than 6,000 acres of old-growth.
Theoretically, the Forest Plan “conservation strategy” protects the deer/ wolf/ hunter relationship by requiring areas of the forest to keep enough forest habitat to support 18 deer/ sq mi.. The Big Thorne area is already well below this figure, and the proposed logging would push it even lower.
Scientists, including Dr. Person, have been hollering about the 18 deer/ sq mi. threshold for years, to no avail. Without enough underlying habitat, the whole system of interaction between deer, wolves and hunters breaks down, they say. Without habitat, fiddling around with hunting regulations doesn’t matter.
That’s not what the Forest Service wants to hear, however, so they’ve ignored it. This reality interferes with their plan to stay out of roadless areas by concentrating logging in sacrifice zones like Prince of Wales. The Forest Service don't want to admit to locals that cutting all those trees means they won’t have enough deer to hunt.
The State, who is in charge of managing wildlife, just wants to blame wolves.
Which brings us to the emotional heart of the issue.
Some Humans Don’t Love Wolves
The second threat to wolves is unsustainable hunting and trapping. A determined trapper or two can take every wolf in an area, and that’s what’s been happening on Prince of Wales.
In fall of 2012, Dr. Person determined through DNA sampling that there were about 29 wolves in the project area, in two packs.
In spring of 2013, he could only account for six or seven remaining. That winter, at least 15 wolves were killed legally, more when you count poaching.
Last winter was even worse, reducing the lone remaining pack of 13 to only 4.
The Forest Service claims that problem should be left to State game management to more strictly regulate hunters and trappers.
But is that right? I disagree that the folks who hunt and trap wolves on POW are blood-thirsty, stupid, and they almost always care deeply about a healthy environment.
The problem isn’t mean people, it’s bad management. Two factors are at play. First of all, the vast network of logging roads exposes pretty much every wolf to hunting. Work by Dr. Person showed that when more than 40% of a wolf home range is logged and roaded, it can become a population sink. The Forest Service proposal would bring it up to 80%.
The second factor is that wolf trappers are do-it-yourself predator controllers. When deer populations are low— and they are surely dropping as a result of all the logging— trappers kill a lot of wolves to help the deer.
The Forest Service strategy is to trust the State of Alaska board of game to keep wolf trapping sustainable. In reality, that’s obvious nonsense. The State would cheerfully kill the last wolf it if meant an easier venison steak. State sponsored predator control includes plans to kill 80% of the wolves around Petersburg, and all the wolves off another island.
Even if you could trust the State, and you can’t, hunting regulation can’t be the solution because the State has no population estimate for wolves. State management is predicated on knowing how many of a critter there are, calculating how many you can kill and still leave enough to breed, and fixing a harvest limit. But if you don’t know how many wolves there are, how can we say what harvest limit is sustainable?
There is also the problem of poaching. Dr. Person’s work has shown illegal harvest can be roughly equivalent to legal trapping. With deer shortages driving them, how could the State really regulate experienced and motivated trappers on remote Prince of Wales?
What Governor Parnell tried for so long to keep hidden, now will see the light of day in front of a Federal judge.
Deer hunters, wolf lovers, and scientists all have a direct stake in the outcome of this fight.
We’ll keep you posted.