A population of wolves on the Prince of Wales Island in Alaska’s Tongass National Forest were almost completely wiped out last winter, as 97 percent of the known population fell victim to trapping on the island. The legal practice carried out from 2019 to 2020 killed 165 wolves out of 170, triggering calls for a ban before the wolves are eradicated completely.
Animal trapping involves the use of a remote device to capture and sometimes kill wild animals and are used commonly for overpopulated or invasive species such as possum in New Zealand. The traps laid out on Prince of Wales Island are there to catch the wolves as part of the Wolf Habitat Management Program devised by the US Forest Service (FS) and the Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADF&G). The program was put in place to sustainably manage the wolf population, which are a threat to game species such as deer.
But conservationists warn the “sustainability” element of the agreement has been lost. "The unprecedented killing of these imperiled wolves is an appalling and completely predictable result of reckless mismanagement," said Shaye Wolf in a statement, who IFLScience has confirmed is a human scientist at the Center for Biological Diversity despite having a name that implies a conflict of interest. "It's difficult to see how state and federal officials can allow hunting and trapping next season without completely wiping out these wolves. They have a duty to protect these beautiful animals from extinction."
Conservationist groups have made an impassioned plea to the Forest Service and Alaska Department of Fish and Game to react to the devastating loss by changing the rules surrounding legal trapping. The last population estimate in 2018 indicated their population was at 170, meaning just five wolves remain. The non-profits Defenders of Wildlife, the Center for Biological Diversity, and the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council have been quick to highlight that this figure doesn’t even include illegal killings, which aren’t uncommon.
The wolves on Prince of Wales Island aren’t just at risk from trapping. Hunting and industrial logging in their habitat are also putting great strain on the already suffering population. In previous years, lower quotas have been introduced to try and maintain the “sustainability” aspect of wolf trapping, allowing just 20 percent of the population or lower to be trapped, which led to an increase in 2014 from 89 wolves to 225 wolves in 2017. This number, however, has been dropping again ever since they lifted the wolf-trapping quota this past season.
“While wolf management has always been a controversial issue in Southeast Alaska, it simply belies common sense for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game to allow legal trapping of 97 percent of any game population,” said Meredith Trainor, executive director for the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council, in a statement. “We’re calling on the U.S. Forest Service to take a larger role in, at a minimum, ensuring sustainably managed wolf populations on Prince of Wales Island by partnering with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game to immediately return to the quota system.”