The sale of 6,186 acres of old-growth trees for harvest in the Tongass National Forest has been halted. U.S. Forest Service Regional Forester Beth Pendleton wrote in a Sept. 30 letter that the sale needs to be reconsidered because of a statement from a former state biologist who says the Big Thorne timber harvest would wreak havoc on the wolf-deer ecological dynamic on Prince of Wales Island and possibly lead to extinction of the island’s wolf population.
Dr. David K. Person is a wildlife biologist who has studied Alexander Archipelago wolves and Sitka black-tailed deer in Southeast Alaska for 22 years. Person worked for the Alaska Department of Fish & Game for 15 years before leaving the agency in May 2013.
Pearson writes in his August statement to the Forest Service, “that the Big Thorne timber sale, if implemented, represents the final straw that will break the back of a sustainable wolf-deer predator-prey ecological community on Prince of Wales Island, and consequently, the viability of the wolf population on the island may be jeopardized.”
Person goes on to write that wolf populations have declined rapidly in recent years in the area of the Big Thorne project because of old-growth logging.
“The Big Thorne project will harvest much of the best remaining mid and low elevation deer winter habitat in this part of Prince of Wales Island, which will most likely, over time, result in further declines in deer and wolf populations.”
Pendleton, the regional forester for Alaska, wrote in her letter that while Person maintains this information was included in the Big Thorne environmental impact statement, she believed that he had not previously concluded that the sale would so negatively affect wolf and deer on the island.
“This is new information that I cannot ignore,” Pendleton wrote.
Pendleton has directed Tongass Forest Supervisor Forrest Cole to consult with the Interagency Wolf Task Force to evaluate Person’s statement. Pendleton also directed Cole to prepare a report that addresses concerns about the wolf and deer populations on Prince of Wales Island.
Austin Williams, the Alaska forest program manager for Trout Unlimited, said that while conservation groups like his are happy with the delay of the sale, it’s only one of the major timber sales that they are concerned with.
“We have Wrangell Island, Saddle Lakes and Mitkoff Island,” Williams said, referring to areas in the Tongass that are planned for future timber harvest. “If you add up all the timber that is currently being planned for, you have a pipeline that goes out 20 years”
Williams said that 20 years of timber goes against the Forest Service’s plan to transition away from old-growth harvests within 15 years.
“Big Thorne is kind of a symptom of a larger problem,” Williams said. “The Forest Service is spending all its resources and a ton of money for large old-growth timber sales and what they should be focusing on is things that actually keep people in Southeast employed, like the fishing and tourism industries.”
Shelly Wright, executive director for Southeast Conference, a pro-development group, said that the decision is discouraging.
“It’s just so maddening that people don’t understand how insignificant this little bit of logging would have been to the habitat of the forest,” Wright said. “It’s so one sided.”
Wright said that Viking Lumber, the contractor that won the bid on the Big Thorne sale, would have to “close for the winter or scale back to a skeleton crew.” She said the business was relying on the sale to make it through the winter. Viking Lumber could not be reached for comment.
“It is extremely disappointing that the Forest Service is willing to take away people’s livelihoods and jobs to save a wolf that isn’t even endangered,” Wright said. “This sale is only 6,000 acres out of a 17-million acre forest.”
Wright’s understanding that the wolves are not endangered comes form an October 2012 status report from Fish & Game. The report cites the work of Person numerous times.
The report says that while there is a lack of quantitative data available to assess actual population levels, Fish & Game believes that “while there may be vulnerabilities for wolves in select parts of GMU 2 (Person et al. 1996, Person 2001, Person and Russell 2008, Person and Logan 2012), wolves are viable (i.e., not threatened with extinction) across their overall historic range in Southeast Alaska.”
The Fish & Game report also said that substantial efforts to reduce the wolf population in parts of Southeast were made prior to statehood and through the 70s.
“Among the techniques used was deployment of poisoned baits and implementation of bounties. Reductions resulting from these actions appear to have been temporary, though there is no way of knowing whether genetic shifts may have occurred. This suggests that wolves in Southeast Alaska are quite resilient to perturbation.”
Person wrote in his statement that he raised concerns about the Prince of Wales wolf population in 2011, while he was still employed by Fish & Game, but that the whole of his supporting documentation was not included in the state’s comment to the Forest Service on the Big Thorne sale.
The Forest Service could not be reached for comment because of the federal government shutdown.
• Contact reporter Jennifer Canfield at 523-2279 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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