Wolves Are Losing Ground to Industrial Logging in Southeast Alaska
By Faith Rudebusch
For 12,000 years, wolves have roamed Southeast Alaska's rugged Alexander Archipelago—a 300-mile stretch of more than 1,000 islands mostly within the Tongass National Forest. Now, their old-growth forest habitat is rapidly disappearing, putting the wolves at risk. As the region's logging policies garner controversy, a new study examines what the wolves need in order to survive.
Largely isolated from mainland wolves by water barriers and the Coast Mountains, the Alexander Archipelago wolf (Canis lupus ligoni) is widely considered to be a subspecies of gray wolf genetically distinct from other North American populations. In the 1990s and again in 2011, conservationists sought to protect the island wolves under the Endangered Species Act, but the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service denied these petitions—most recently, in January 2016.
Despite their decision not to list the subspecies, in their analysis, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service highlighted Prince of Wales Island as the area of greatest concern for the archipelago wolves, due primarily to impacts of logging and trapping. Bigger than the state of Delaware, Prince of Wales is the largest island in Southeast Alaska and the fourth-largest island in the U.S., after Hawaii, Kodiak Island and Puerto Rico. The island's lowland hills are blanketed with temperate rainforests of spruce and hemlock and strewn with winding rivers and fjords.
Much of Prince of Wales' scant human population of fewer than 5,500 residents makes its living from the island's natural resources—uranium mining, commercial fishing, hunting and harvesting timber. The Tongass, which covers most of the island, is the last national forest where the logging industry can legally clear-cut old-growth timber. "The trees are huge ... it's been the epicenter for the logging industry in Alaska," said Gretchen Roffler, a wildlife research biologist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADF&G).
When commercial logging reached Prince of Wales in the 1950s, it hit full force. Between 1954 and 2004, 94 percent of the "contiguous, high-volume old-growth—the big trees, the really high-quality timber—was harvested," according to John Schoen, retired senior conservation biologist with ADF&G. "That's a huge impact."
"Prince of Wales Island is basically a patchwork of the remaining old-growth and then second-growth in various stages of reforestation," Roffler said. "Everything from clear-cuts to older second-growth."
Today, logging roads etch elaborate curlicues into the island's topography. The extensive road system provides hunters and trappers with easy access to the wolves, which are simultaneously prized for their pelts and regarded as competitors that steal hunters' deer. According to Roffler, 60 wolves were hunted or trapped last year, 2 illegally. The total number of wolves killed without permits is, of course, impossible to obtain. Roffler said that ADF&G estimated that 231 wolves inhabited Prince of Wales and surrounding smaller islands in the fall of 2017.
Although hunting and trapping have the potential to eradicate wolves in the short-term, habitat loss from logging poses an even greater long-term challenge for wolf survival, said Roffler, whose study of wolves on Prince of Wales was recently published in Forest Ecology and Management. Logging primarily affects wolves by reducing habitat for deer, their primary source of prey. To learn more about which pieces of the fragmented landscape the wolves tend to frequent, Roffler and her team distributed radio collars among 13 wolves in 7 packs. The radio collars transmitted wolf locations for up to two years per animal, allowing unprecedented insight into their movements.
Roffler and her colleagues found that the island wolves used a variety of habitats: open meadows, marshy muskegs, salmon streams and even recent clear-cuts seasonally accommodated these adaptable animals. Wolves avoided areas with high road densities during the spring denning season and summer, but strongly selected these areas during the winter. They spent much of the fall and winter hunting Sitka black-tailed deer in low-volume, old-growth forest. There, the tree canopies act as umbrellas, catching much of the snow. According to Schoen, deer need old-growth forests to access food during the winter.
Roffler's research showed that wolves, like deer in previous studies, consistently avoided younger forests. Logged 25 to 30-plus years ago, young-growth conifer forests replace clear-cuts in accordance with the ecological principle of succession. The trees' interlocking branches keep light from reaching the forest floor, where few plants are able to grow. Deer, along with most other wildlife, can find almost nothing to eat in such forests. Coined "succession debt" by scientists, this legacy from prior logging operations will impact wildlife for more than a century.
Wolves are considered habitat generalists, existing in a broad range of habitats and ecological conditions worldwide. "They live in deserts and outside of urban areas; they live in forests and out in the mountains and in the grasslands," said Roffler. "But they are really strongly avoiding the older clear-cuts on Prince of Wales Island. And that's significant because there's a lot of land area moving into that kind of forest."
In an attempt to salvage this new kind of habitat for wildlife, the U.S. Forest Service recently began pre-commercially thinning the trees. But the wolves in Roffler's study didn't show any preference for the thinned forests. "The thinning treatments… haven't been very effective at creating better habitat for wolves," Roffler said. "And when we say better habitat for wolves, we probably really mean better habitat for deer, because that's why wolves would most likely be going into these forests."
Roffler says that deer are wolves' primary food source. As deer populations decline, she predicts that wolves will switch to other forms of prey. She found that beavers, seasonally available salmon, bear cubs and adult bear carcasses (abandoned by hunters) all contribute to the island wolves' diets. But Schoen is less optimistic, stating that Prince of Wales residents depend on successful deer hunts to feed their families. He believes that as succession debt reduces deer populations, hunters will increasingly target wolves, legally or illegally, as they are perceived as depleting deer populations.
For decades, the Forest Service has struggled to reconcile the ecological value of 200- to 500-year-old trees with their economic value as timber. In December 2016, the agency, in consultation with scientists and members of the public, approved a 16-year plan to transition away from old-growth logging to the exclusive harvest of previously logged lands.
Alaska's Senator Lisa Murkowski and the logging industry don't like this plan. During a February roundtable discussion with Senator Murkowski, panelists lobbied to keep their access to the forest, according to Alaska Public Media. Timber company representatives pointed out that their lumber mills can't process smaller trees. Senator Murkowski pushed for riders to the 2018 Omnibus Spending Bill that would have voided the expiration date on old-growth logging and allowed new road construction in the Tongass (new roads are normally banned in National Forests); the bill passed without the riders.
"The timber industry wants to log the high-volume, big-tree stands," said Schoen. "It's like picking the M&Ms out of a bag of GORP." Since 2014, Schoen has collaborated with other preeminent scientists working to end clear-cutting in the old-growth forest. "I think, if the timber industry had the opportunity, they would continue clear-cutting the rare, big tree, old-growth forest in the Tongass for probably the next 10 to 15 years, until those valuable trees were gone. After that, they would pull out." Disheartened by how long the Forest Service has taken to protect these trees, he adds, "That kind of forestry is unsustainable and would do great damage to the fish and wildlife resources of the Tongass, the only national forest where old-growth is still allowed to be clear-cut."
Former chief of the Forest Service Mike Dombeck recently argued for protecting Tongass old-growth in the New York Times. Dombeck concluded, "To restart road building in Alaska's most pristine national forests will only repeat history, leading to more lawsuits and uncertainty while undercutting the region's economic bases of fishing and tourism."
"I think there's a serious conservation concern," said Schoen. "The science community recognizes that old-growth forests are rare. They're highly valuable, not just for deer or wolves or marbled murrelets or goshawks. They're valuable really as an endangered ecosystem."
Reposted with permission from our media associate Earth Island Journal.
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World Environment Day: A Time to Consider the Planet We’ll Return To, and Decide How to Care For It Going Forward
It's a different kind of World Environment Day this year. In prior years, it might have been enough to plant a tree, spend some extra time in the garden, or teach kids the importance of recycling. This year we have heavier tasks at hand. It's been months since we've been able to spend sufficient time outside, and as we lustfully watch the beauty of a new spring through our kitchen's glass windows, we have to decide how we'll interact with the natural world on our release, and how we can prevent, or be equipped to handle, future threats against our wellbeing.
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By Lindsey Schneider, Joshua Sbicca and Stephanie Malin
The SARS-CoV-2 virus is novel, but pandemic threats to indigenous peoples are anything but new. Diseases like measles, smallpox and the Spanish flu have decimated Native American communities ever since the arrival of the first European colonizers.
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History Reverberates on Native Lands<p>Native communities in North America have been disrupted and displaced for centuries. Many face long-standing food and water <a href="http://www.nativepartnership.org/site/DocServer/2017-PWNA-NPRA-Food-Insecurity-Project-Grow.pdf?docID=7106" target="_blank">inequities</a> that are further complicated by this pandemic.</p><p>On the Navajo reservation, which covers more than 27,000 square miles in Arizona, Utah and New Mexico, 76% of households already <a href="https://www.researchgate.net/publication/235390130_High_levels_of_household_food_insecurity_on_the_Navajo_Nation" target="_blank">have trouble affording enough healthy food</a>, and the nearest grocery store is often hours away. COVID-related restrictions have further curtailed access to food supplies.</p><p>Clean water for basic sanitary measures like hand-washing is also scarce. Native Americans are <a href="http://uswateralliance.org/sites/uswateralliance.org/files/Closing%20the%20Water%20Access%20Gap%20in%20the%20United%20States_DIGITAL.pdf" target="_blank">19 times more likely</a> to lack indoor plumbing than whites in the U.S. Nearly one-third of Navajo households <a href="https://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/coronavirus-hits-indian-country-hard-exposing-infrastructure-disparities-n1186976" target="_blank">lack access to running water</a>.</p><p>Many <a href="https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/69/wr/mm6915e3.htm" target="_blank">health issues</a> that can increase COVID-19 mortality rates occur at high levels among Native Americans. These <a href="http://www.ncai.org/news/articles/2020/03/18/the-national-congress-of-american-indians-calls-for-more-attention-to-covid-19-impacts-to-indian-country" target="_blank">underlying</a> and <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/S0140-6736(20)30893-X" target="_blank">preexisting</a> conditions – things like hypertension, diabetes, obesity and cardiovascular disease – are <a href="https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/69/wr/mm6913e2.htm" target="_blank">linked to diet</a> and stem from <a href="https://www.oupress.com/books/15107980/indigenous-food-sovereignty-in-the-united-sta" target="_blank">disruption and replacement</a> of Indigenous food systems.</p>
High Exposure Rates<p>These factors have clear health impacts. On the Navajo reservation, for instance, through May 27, 2020, <a href="https://www.navajo-nsn.gov/News%20Releases/OPVP/2020/May/FOR%20IMMEDIATE%20RELEASE%20-%201620%20recoveries_102%20new%20cases%20of%20COVID-19_and%20one%20more%20death%20reported.pdf" target="_blank">4,944 people</a> out of a population of 173,000 had tested positive for COVID-19, and 159 had died.</p><p>This infection rate per capita exceeds those in hot spots such as <a href="https://www.forbes.com/sites/alexandrasternlicht/2020/05/19/navajo-nation-has-most-coronavirus-infections-per-capita-in-us-beating-new-york-new-jersey/#11a4fac08b10" target="_blank">New York and New Jersey</a>. Importantly, however, it may also reflect a much <a href="https://www.sltrib.com/news/2020/04/19/navajo-nation-has-higher/" target="_blank">more proactive approach to testing</a> on reservations than in many other jurisdictions.</p><p>The fact that elderly people are especially vulnerable to COVID-19 could worsen the pandemic's effects in Indian Country. Elders are the <a href="https://ais.washington.edu/research/publications/spirits-our-whaling-ancestors" target="_blank">keepers of traditional knowledge, tribal languages and culture</a> – legacies whose loss already threatens the persistence of indigenous communities.</p><p>Elders also play key roles in preserving traditional plant and medicine knowledge. In the absence of COVID-19 interventions from Western medicine, many elders have been called on to perform healing practices, which increases their exposure risk.</p>
Little Help From Federal and State Governments<p>Many tribal members rely on the federal government's <a href="https://www.ihs.gov/" target="_blank">Indian Health Service</a> for health care. But <a href="https://theconversation.com/tribal-leaders-face-great-need-and-dont-have-enough-resources-to-respond-to-the-coronavirus-pandemic-134372" target="_blank">lack of capacity</a> at the agency has hampered its response. Budget shortfalls, <a href="https://indiancountrytoday.com/news/report-grossly-inaccurate-data-used-to-divvy-up-relief-funds-for-tribes-9qkkHmeXj0uhRC42mXYqCA" target="_blank">inaccurate data</a>, the challenges of providing <a href="https://indiancountrytoday.com/news/coronavirus-risk-is-compounded-by-the-rural-DC-rMTUzzE6WDGee8jbENQ" target="_blank">rural health care</a> and ongoing personnel shortages in IHS clinics are compounded by staff being <a href="https://navajotimes.com/reznews/dikos-ntsaaigii-doodaa-nation-musters-defense-against-covid-19/" target="_blank">pulled away</a> to fight the virus in large cities.</p><p>And while many states have raised frustrations with the Trump administration's unwillingness to distribute protective supplies from the <a href="https://www.vox.com/recode/2020/4/3/21206170/us-emergency-stockpile-jared-kushner-almost-empty-coronavirus-medical-supplies-ventilators" target="_blank">dwindling national stockpile</a>, IHS and tribal health care authorities <a href="https://www.azpm.org/p/home-articles-news/2020/3/17/167874-bill-calls-for-more-tribal-community-access-to-federal-stockpile-of-medical-supplies/" target="_blank">never had access</a> to the stockpile at all.</p><p>Although the federal government has begun <a href="https://www.hhs.gov/about/news/2020/05/22/hhs-announces-500-million-distribution-to-tribal-hospitals-clinics-and-urban-health-centers.html" target="_blank">distributing relief funds</a> to IHS agencies, there have been serious problems with the accompanying supplies. The Navajo Nation has received <a href="https://www.indianz.com/News/2020/05/22/propublica-former-trump-aide-provided-fa.asp" target="_blank">faulty masks</a>, and a Seattle Native health center asked for tests but <a href="https://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/native-american-health-center-asked-covid-19-supplies-they-got-n1200246" target="_blank">received body bags instead</a>.</p><p>Meanwhile, federally imposed limits on tribal sovereignty have obstructed tribal governments' efforts to deal with the pandemic themselves. Federal and state governments are <a href="https://www.seattletimes.com/seattle-news/makah-tribe-fights-coronavirus-with-self-reliance-and-extreme-isolation/" target="_blank">challenging tribes' jurisdictional authority</a> to <a href="https://www.azfamily.com/news/mayor-of-page-accused-of-racist-social-media-comment-toward-navajo-nation-president/article_e2e6efd6-8db4-11ea-a8a2-7f6976d702f6.html" target="_blank">close borders to tourists</a> who may carry the virus. South Dakota's governor has <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2020/may/14/sioux-coronavirus-roadblocks-south-dakota-governor" target="_blank">threatened legal action</a> against two tribes who set up checkpoints to monitor incoming traffic on their reservations.</p>
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Environmental Injustices on Native Land<p>Energy development and resource extraction have had <a href="https://www.haymarketbooks.org/books/898-all-our-relations" target="_blank">disproportionate impacts</a> on tribes for many years. Today, many Native American leaders worry that ongoing energy production – <a href="https://www.ncsl.org/research/labor-and-employment/covid-19-essential-workers-in-the-states.aspx" target="_blank">an "essential" activity under federal guidelines</a> will bring outsiders into close contact with reservation communities, worsening COVID risks.</p><p>The owners of the Keystone XL oil pipeline have announced that they intend to continue construction, which will bring an influx of workers along the proposed route through Montana, South Dakota and Nebraska. The Rosebud Sioux Tribe in South Dakota and Fort Belknap Indian community in Montana have filed for a <a href="https://www.narf.org/keystone-xl/" target="_blank">temporary restraining order</a>, and a key permit for the pipeline was <a href="https://www.democracynow.org/2020/4/16/headlines/us_judge_revokes_crucial_permit_for_keystone_xl_pipeline" target="_blank">revoked in April 2020</a>, but work continues at the U.S.-Canada border.</p><p>Construction is accelerating on the <a href="https://www.azcentral.com/story/news/politics/border-issues/2020/03/17/border-patrol-waives-laws-border-wall-construction-southern-arizona/5063618002/" target="_blank">southern border wall</a>, which bisects the <a href="http://www.tonation-nsn.gov/" target="_blank">Tohono O'odham reservation</a> in Arizona and Mexico. The Trump administration has <a href="https://www.thenation.com/article/politics/border-coronavirus-military-immigration/" target="_blank">increased patrols at the border</a>, despite the tribe's concern that the patrols' presence is <a href="https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2020/04/06/coronavirus-cbp-160-cases-covid-19-officers-agents/2958736001/" target="_blank">spreading coronavirus</a> on the reservation.</p><p>And in Bristol Bay, Alaska, a salmon fishing season that brings in thousands of temporary workers is <a href="https://indiancountrytoday.com/news/it-s-hard-when-you-love-something-xlS49l2N20KZjqumwfzZfQ" target="_blank">set to open in June</a> because the federal government has also deemed commercial fishing "<a href="https://www.cisa.gov/sites/default/files/publications/CISA-Guidance-on-Essential-Critical-Infrastructure-Workers-1-20-508c.pdf" target="_blank">essential critical infrastructure</a>." Many local Native villages depend on the fishery for income, but have nonetheless pleaded with state regulators to <a href="https://indiancountrytoday.com/news/urgent-calls-to-close-the-massive-bristol-bay-fishery-8lYsGkUeDUyCBW7FMwpSfA?fbclid=IwAR1710u4rQnriq_MgH2ueQxOFtfGiGiH8I2ZdJRCZS9f28Zl-JNkPLpnzZo" target="_blank">cancel the season</a>. The regional hospital has just four beds for possible COVID-19 patients.</p>
Bold Action in Native Communities<p>Native communities are taking decisive action to reduce the spread of COVID-19. They're imposing aggressive <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/09/us/coronavirus-navajo-nation.html" target="_blank">quarantine</a> measures like lockdowns, curfews and border closures. Communities are <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2020/mar/18/covidcoronavirus-native-american-lummi-nation-trailblazing-steps" target="_blank">ramping up health care capacity</a> and elder support services, and banishing nontribal members who <a href="https://rapidcityjournal.com/news/local/oglala-sioux-council-banishes-non-member-with-covid-19-from-reservation/article_60b665c3-9d1b-5d48-a576-51774e4fb41a.html" target="_blank">violate travel restrictions</a>.</p><p>Other strategies include helping hunters <a href="https://indiancountrytoday.com/news/ammo-fuel-for-hunters-to-feed-others-Ki3zK6du-ky-UogoB9-aNQ" target="_blank">provide traditional foods</a> to their communities, <a href="https://ndncollective.org/indigenizing-and-decolonizing-community-care-in-response-to-covid-19/" target="_blank">mobilizing to support tribal health care workers</a>, and <a href="https://www.ehn.org/coronavirus-native-americans-2645923635.html" target="_blank">linking the pandemic and the climate crisis</a>. Looking ahead to a post-COVID future, we believe one priority should be attending to <a href="http://www.beacon.org/As-Long-as-Grass-Grows-P1445.aspx" target="_blank">front-line environmental justice struggles</a> that center tribes' sovereignty to act on their own behalf at all times, not just during national crises.</p>
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The ocean is our lifeline - we rely on it for the food we eat, the air we breathe, as well as for millions for jobs worldwide.
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