A predator and a pedestal

Controversy continues over how to manage the wolf population on America’s fourth largest island, Prince of Wales

Judy and Herb Wright operate the Point Baker Trading Post from May to September, selling milk and eggs to passing fishing boats and residents of the 25-person community just north of Prince of Wales Island.

 

The “convenience store,” as Judy put it, is accessible only by boat. It sells “Basically, everything (fishermen) have forgotten,” Judy said.

Half gallons of milk sell for about $7 dollars. The Wrights don’t sell full gallons: they might spoil before they’re purchased.

They’ve operated the business for 30 years, making “their little piece of the pie” in the summer. The rest of the year they “kick back” and live off the land.

They cherish the peace and quiet.

“It’s hard to find that anymore,” Judy said.

That’s how it is for residents of Point Baker and its sister community of Port Protection. You hunt, fish and trap most of your food. For your hard work, you get to enjoy off-the-grid peace and quiet.

Judy doesn’t hesitate to admit that her customers, though dependent on the trading post for many staples, get a bulk of their food straight from the source.

“Our neighbors live off the ocean or the woods. It’s either fish or venison,” Wright said.

Outside of the urban areas of Ketchikan and Juneau, everyone in Southeast Alaska can participate in subsistence hunts, which in many cases allow rural residents a little more wiggle room to get the food they need.

That could mean an extra week to hunt moose or a higher limit for salmon. For Point Baker residents, and many of POW residents, black-tailed deer and salmon are the main course, day in and day out.

But lately, rural hunters on Prince of Wales Island have been frustrated. Competition for deer has come in the form of a rebounding wolf population, which preys on deer in the area and has been protected in recent years by conservation efforts. An increase in non-local hunters, from both rural and urban areas, is also being blamed for a difficulty, locals say, in securing what they need.

The conflict led, in meetings in Juneau this week, to the Southeast Alaska Subsistence Regional Advisory Council increasing wolf harvest levels. The council also passed a proposal to lower the amount of deer non-rural users can harvest on POW’s federal public lands from four deer to two.

Both decisions are part of an ongoing controversy about how to manage deer and wolves on America’s fourth-largest island.

An animal or an icon?

The population of wolves on Prince of Wales has fluctuated recently. Population estimates dipped to a low of 89 animals in 2014 but have since rebounded to 230 wolves, according to Alaska Department of Fish and Game numbers derived from DNA hair samples and game trail cameras.

POW wolves’ are a unique subspecies, the Alexander Archipelago wolf, which can be found only in Southeast Alaska. Their low numbers leave them vulnerable — the Alexander Archipelago wolf has been shortlisted for the Endangered Species List twice. Both times they were denied, most recently in January of 2016.

Don Hernandez is one of two council members who lives in the Prince of Wales game management area. Like Judy and Herb Wright, Hernandez is a Point Baker resident. Instead of taking a week off work to deer hunt, most hunters in Point Baker are in the woods every day, he said.

“You devote the fall to getting meat. You devote the summer to putting away fish. It’s just kind of how it works,” Hernandez said after Thursday’s council meeting.

Hernandez has a lot of reverence for wolves. He calls them “amazing creatures” and considers himself lucky to see a few wolves on POW in his 30 years living and hunting there, something he says hunters can go their lives without experiencing.

But he also says he doesn’t see them as worthy of any special protections. It’s a sentiment he hears from others around Point Baker.

“I think a lot of people kind of resent the fact that wolves are kind of, you know, placed on a pedestal, so to speak, that there’s something really special about wolves,” Hernandez said. “They’re are a valuable part of the ecosystem for many reasons. And yet, (hunters) don’t put them on this special place like they’re really, you know, this iconic species. … For people who have lived all their lives in that ecosystem, they’re just part of it.”

Changes to the hunt

This year, subsistence hunters on POW will be allowed to harvest 46 wolves. A total of 30 wolves were taken last year.

The quota is determined by ADF&G and the U.S. Forest Service, which collaborate with input from locals to set that number. There’s currently no official harvest level for subsistence hunters, but the two agencies typically set the quota at 20 percent, following guidelines for non-subsistence wolf hunting on POW.

Wolf hunters can both trap and shoot their wolves, which are primarily hunted for their pelts, which can be legally sold to fur traders or locally.

In 2015 and 2016, the agencies halved the number of wolves subsistence hunters were allowed to take after a study showed that “unreported human-caused mortality” — deaths caused by wolves escaping from traps, being hit by vehicles or killed illegally — impacted wolf populations.

That move had the “desired effect,” council member Michael A. Douville said, of helping wolf populations recover. Douville is the only other council member from the Prince of Wales game management area, where he’s lived for 68 years.

Douville voted to increase the harvest level up to 30 percent. He said the “up to” part of the proposal’s language allows wiggle room should wolf populations dip again.

The decision to increase the harvest level had nothing to do with protecting deer populations from wolves, as the council isn’t tasked with predator control, Douville said. But he also said locals are having a harder time finding deer, putting in more effort to locate bucks, which he blames on higher wolf populations and an increase in non-local hunters.

“Close to 4,000 bucks have been taken a year, and I think we’re starting to see the strain of exactly that. Because we see an increasing population of wolf, for one, and we have an increase in hunter effort. Non-rural hunters have increased,” Douville said.

But local’s perception that finding deer has become harder doesn’t square with data from Fish &Game, which shows that the amount of time it takes locals to harvest a deer hasn’t increased recently.

Subsistence hunters on POW are allowed to harvest four male deer (bucks) and a female (doe). Non-rural hunters can harvest four bucks. With so much pressure on the buck population, Douville says locals are traveling further and having a harder time finding bucks.

Barnet Freedman, a longtime hunter from Thorne Bay, has also noticed the increase in pressure on deer populations. In a written comment to the council on the proposal to limit non-rural hunters’ bag limits, Freedman wrote, “I have hunted on POW for 35 years as a full-time resident and am retired at 65 years old. The harvest needs to be reduced as competition from outside hunters continues to be an issue.”

But local knowledge from Douville, Freedman and others does not square with what Fish &Game studies.

ADF&G Regional Supervisor Ryan Scott said “at first blush” it looks like hunters are getting as many deer as ever and in as much time, but it could be that something is going on with deer populations that their data isn’t catching.

The number of deer harvested in Unit 2 has trended up from 2005-2016, from a low of 2,562 deer in 2005 to a high of 4,179 in 2015, according to ADF&G’s numbers. That high point occurred the same year wolf harvest levels were cut by half. The number of days, according to Fish &Game, it takes a Unit 2 resident to harvest a deer has also remained steady at between two and three days.

The number of deer harvested per Unit 2 resident has also remained steady in that time period at between two and two and a half deer per hunter.

“I don’t think they’re wrong, necessarily, it’s trying to understand the disconnect,” Scott said.

What’s next?

The council’s proposals will have to be approved by the Federal Subsistence Board at an April 2018 meeting before going into effect on July 1, 2018. The board could turn the proposals down, but it is more typical for them to approve a regional council proposal than not.

Some board members expressed concern that the proposal to increase wolf harvests will draw litigation from environmental activist groups. Larry Edwards, a Sitka conservationist known for his work with Greenpeace and lawsuits over wolf management on POW, wrote a lengthy public comments opposing the increase in wolf harvests in the area. He couldn’t be reached for comment for this story.

“There is no need to liberalize the wolf regulation, because the main motive for doing so is to provide more deer for subsistence hunters. Other more important factors concerning competition between resident and off-island deer hunters and non-wolf causes of deer mortality need to be considered first,” Edwards wrote.


• Contact reporter Kevin Gullufsen at 523-2228 or kevin.gullufsen@juneauempire.com


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