The former state wildlife biologist who convinced the U.S. Forest Service to re-evaluate its approval of a major timber sale in the Tongass National Forest on Prince of Wales Island says if the sale goes through, it will devastate the ecological community on the island.
“You can either have a Big Thorne timber sale and support the logging jobs, whatever Big Thorne is going to do for you, or you don’t have Big Thorne and you’re going to have, hopefully, a resilient ecological predator-prey community,” Dr. Dave Person said. “But you can’t have both. There’s no win-win here. It’s win-lose. You have to decide, do you sacrifice one for the other?”
Person worked for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game for 15 years before retiring in May. In an August affidavit to Regional Forester Beth Pendleton, Person warned that the Big Thorne sale “represents the final straw that will break the back of a sustainable wolf-deer predator-prey ecological community on Prince of Wales Island.” That was enough for Pendleton to halt the sale and direct Tongass Supervisor Forest Cole to investigate Person’s statement further before moving forward with the sale.
Pendleton and Cole both could not be reached for comment because of a partial government shutdown.
The Big Thorne sale, if approved, would allow for the harvest of 6,186 acres of old-growth trees and 2,299 acres of young growth near Thorne Bay and Coffman Cove. It’s the harvest of old-growth trees on Prince of Wales Island that has conservationists up in arms and wildlife biologists, like Person, concerned.
Person said harvest of the old-growth trees would mean the destruction of the most important remaining deer winter habitat, which would mean fewer deer for wolves, bears and hunters.
“This particular sale is going to make an important impression and have important influence on the central part of Prince of Wales Island in terms of the capacity of the predator-prey system to be resilient and sustainable, particularly in the face of human use of deer and bears and wolves,” Person said. “It’s not just wolves, it’s everybody’s piece of the pie.”
Conservation organizations have attempted to list the Alexander Archipelago wolf as an endangered species. A petition filed last year by Greenpeace and the Center for Biological Diversity is still under consideration.
Person said that the state’s official comments on timber sales in the Tongass don’t present an accurate picture of what wildlife biologists in Alaska understand about predator-prey dynamics and the impact of logging on Prince of Wales Island.
“The current official comments coming from the state do not include a lot of things that many of us biologists in Southeast Alaska brought to the table during the scoping and comment period for Big Thorne or Logjam,” Person said. “It’s a case where there’s a lot of opinions not being heard in the official state comments.”
Just how important the wolves on Prince of Wales Island are depends on who you ask. Person and some other wildlife biologists consider the wolves to be a genetically distinct subspecies known as the Alexander Archipelago wolf. Person said that because Prince of Wales Island isn’t accessible at low tide like other surrounding islands are, recolonization would be unlikely if they were extinct from the island.
“What makes Prince of Wales a little different simply is that population is isolated,” Person said. “Lets say if wolves somehow on Kuiu, Kupreanof or Revilla island went extinct, there is always a chance that you would have recolonization occurring from the mainland or from some other island group. We have telemetry data that suggests that would be the case.”
In an October 2012 report from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, the department cites studies that suggests the wolves are related to another subspecies that once inhabited the northwestern United States.
“Clearly, the taxonomic status of wolves in Southeast Alaska is in debate,” the report says. “Work is currently underway by the University of Alaska to assess the genetic variation and population genetic relationships among wolf subspecies and populations, including wolves in Southeast and Interior Alaska.”
Person said biologists have suggested logging practices that “mimic a natural disturbance pattern,” such as a windstorm that might take down a stand of trees, but that the logging industry doesn’t see that as a sustainable business practice. Even if it were a viable practice for the logging industry, Person said more research would have to be done to understand how to enable the practice. He said if done wrong, the practice could cause just as much ecological damage as clearcutting.
“The idea is a good one, it’s probably the only solution to harvesting timber in an ecologically sound way in Southeast, but it’s one of those things that never gets tried because there’s a lot that still needs to be understood about how you do it,” Person said. “It’s complicated because everything in nature is complicated.”
Bryce Dahlstrom is a vice president at Viking Lumber, the company that won the bid on the Big Thorne sale. Dahlstrom said he doesn’t believe that the wolves or the deer on Prince of Wales Island are at risk. He points to hunting regulations on the island that allow hunters to take up to four bucks and five wolves in a season.
“I think if they were worried about it they would change their hunting regulations,” Dahlstrom said. “Just looking at that, if it’s the only thing you look at, it sure looks like they have a high population, otherwise they wouldn’t have the high limits.”
Dahlstrom said Viking Lumber’s short-term plan is to wait for the Forest Service to work out the details of the Big Thorne sale. If that takes too long, he said the company will have to look for other options. He’s hopeful the state will come through with a timber sale that isn’t subject to federal oversight.
“For us to survive we need to have the sale. Any delay that puts it too late into the year for us to get started is going to hurt,” Dahlstrom said. “Once you’ve laid off your crew, they go off and find other work and it’s hard to get them back.”