Wolf Week has special meaning in Southeast

Posted: Thursday, October 21, 2010

The third week of October is Wolf Awareness Week across the nation. This week, conservation groups across the nation push issues relevant to the preservation of the animals as an important part of the ecosystem. The issue holds a special relevance in Southeast Alaska.

Research scientist Dave Person of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game has studied the animals and recognizes Southeast is a special case, saying, "We consider them an important resource and important part of the ecosystem."

"The first thing to keep in mind in Southeast is their origins are different," he said. "They're a different population from up north."

Person explained this is a result of early wolf migrations during eras of melting ice and different sea levels. He said this resulted in the populations here being different from wolves up north.

"From that respect, it becomes a conservation issue," he said.

"Essentially, while they're not protected we are concerned about things such as changes in habitat due to logging and deer," he said.

He said deer numbers greatly influence wolf numbers, as deer are they prey, but this can sometimes be overlooked in decision-making. He said anything that affects deer populations translates to affecting wolf populations.

He cited roads and logging as industries that can have particular effects in that area.

Person noted behavioral differences in Southeast species, such as their habitation of islands and some ability to swim in oceans.

He said wolf appearances are also different here. They are typically smaller and darker than northern species and can have more wiry hair.

Person said there currently aren't good population estimates in the Southeast because they can't be seen easily from the air. He said there are attempts to get better numbers through DNA testing of fecal matter, a technique used for deer estimates.

Person estimates there's probably between 1,000-1,200 wolves in Southeast, with the bulk being south of Frederick Sound.

Deputy field supervisor Steve Brockmann of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service said his department hasn't had much involvement with wolves since publishing findings in 1997 that responded to a petition to list Alexander Archipelago wolves as endangered. The result of that finding was a safeguard to set aside conservation strategies for old growth reserves considered critical for wolf support.

He said the evaluation found the threats weren't severe enough for listing but caused concern for habitat loss.

He said wolves aren't listed on endangered or threatened lists now but have been before. He said they usually do not remain endangered long once their numbers stabilize.

One group sees this week as a prime opportunity to educate about wolves' roles in the population. Amanda Webster, founder and president of Humane Outreach for Wolves League, or HOWL, is aware wolf populations depend greatly on their prey's populations plus needs of hunters.

She said HOWL works with states to minimize unnecessary needs for population control. She cited examples such as aerial gunning and pup poisoning.

Webster said Southeast's small wolf population needs special attention because they do not stay on engendered species lists for long and so the balance is hard to maintain. She said, for that reason, states "encouraging hunting doesn't make a lot of sense."

Education and awareness is another HOWL focus. Webster said many people in other states don't realize that wolves are still around.

HOWL is a nonprofit that promotes wolf education in several states, including Alaska, Montana and Idaho.

• Contact reporter Jonathan Grass at 523-2276 or at jonathan.grass@juneauempire.com.

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