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Habitat Tipping Point: Deer Season Cut, Intensive Wolf Trapping Looms

Clearcut of deer winter habitat on the Tonka road system.

 

During the state’s January 2013 Board of Game meeting in Sitka, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s (ADFG) Wildlife Division reported a crash in the Lindenberg Peninsula deer populatiion. Just a half mile to the east, the Mitkof Island deer population crash has persisted for over 40 years. Hard winters combined with the decades of industrial clearcutting of low elevation deer winter habitat was predicted and resulted in both island-wide crashes. Despite the causal factor of deer declines due to habitat loss, the Tonka Timber Sale is being executed. ADFG presented a Feasibility Assessment for “Intensive Management” (through trapping and hunting) seeking an 80% decimation of wolf populations in areas of Kupreanof, Mitkof and nearby Woewodski Islands.

Management of fish and wildlife populations in Southeast Alaska is split between regulatory actions by the Board of Game and the US Forest Service, which degrades habitat through its timber program. The Board of Game, advised by the ADFG and public, sets regulations for seasons, bag limits, and predator control actions.

 

Debt Burden Fully Realized

The full biological and social costs of three decades of taxpayer-subsidized, low elevation clearcut logging and road building within crucial deer winter habitat on the Lindenberg Peninsula must now be reconciled. Despite the population crash, the Forest Service’s newly approved Tonka Timber Sale is already in motion. Timber cutters are currently falling trees in the snow and major log sort yard construction activities are taking place.

Recognizing that the Tonka Timber Sale heaps hundreds of acres of clearcutting upon past habitat insults, the ADFG Wildlife Division requested — and the Board of Game granted — a reduction in the hunting season to just 14 days and a reduction in the bag limit for Sitka blacktailed deer to a single buck, exposing the myths of “logging is good for deer,” and the boundless plentitude of fish and game in “the Last Frontier.”  But under a 1994 Alaska statute, when restriction of a hunting season is proposed, “intensive management” of predators must be considered.

The cause/effect relationship of  the elimination of deer winter habitat combined with hard winters causing deer population declines has been well-known for decades.  The biological concerns over this relationship have been well documented by the ADFG Wildlife Division in the many environmental impact statements of timber sales on both Kupreanof and nearby Mitkof island, and elsewhere on the Tongass National Forest.

The social costs are significant. These include reduced opportunities for subsistence hunters to feed their families, which in turn results in forcing hunters to encounter greater safety risks and greater expenses in fuel, and greater outlay of capital for an appropriate size of boat necessary to safely travel notoriously treacherous waterbodies at a time of year with limited daylight and a high storm frequency. Each hunting season seems to chronicle the tragic deaths and near-deaths of hunters seeking access to game to feed their families.

There is a population tipping point availability of subsistence resources such as deer. Based upon evidence provided by ADFG to the Board of Game, for all practical purposes that tipping point has occurred. Residents of Mitkof Island, just a half-mile to the east of Lindenberg Peninsula, have been suffering the most restricted deer hunting season in all of Southeast for the past 40 years. This primary cause is the elimination of deer winter habitat by unsustainable levels of clearcutting.

The subsistence landscape of the area documents shortages. East of Mitkof Island lies a narrow strip of habitat on the mainland, five miles across Frederick Sound, with naturally poor habitat providing few deer. West of Kupreanof Island, (of which Lindenberg Peninsula is a the eastern half) lies Kuiu Island, which also has few deer, due in part to clearcutting of the highest quality habitat there . Kuiu Island lies at a distance which necessitates a large boat and a multi-day trip.

The near and long term biological costs of logging are significant and not limited to deer populations. Clearcutting the most valuable wildlife habitat results in declines of many old-growth dependent species as evidenced by the dramatic population declines in marten and Queen Charlotte goshawks within the Tonka Timber sale area. These of course are more evident because they are being tracked. There’s a panoply of old-growth dependent species within the temperate rainforest community which are not being tracked as closely. These include plants, birds, small mammals, and invertebrates, all with lives interwoven with each other.

Worse, the failure to protect the structure and function of old-growth temperate rainforest sets the stage for further biological injury. The State of Alaska is now moving forward with an intent to consider “Intensive Management” of  the Alexander Archipelago wolf to ostensibly allow deer populations to recover more quickly. This involves contracting trappers with the goal of reducing the wolf population by an incredible 80% on the Lindenberg Peninsula and Mitkof and Woewodski Islands.

There is very little data to support and scientifically defend such a management rationale, which has been explained by ADFG as “an experiment.” There is little likelihood of achieving success, while the costs will be quite substantial.  At a total cost of $396,000 to $456,000, we estimate that the few additional harvestable deer will cost the State of Alaska about $9,000 each.

 

Wolf Populations Imperiled

The Alexander Archipelago wolf (Canis lupus ligoni), is a genetically distinct subspecies of the gray wolf. Unlike other wolves, ninety percent of ligoni’s diet consists of a single species — Sitka blacktailed deer. The USFS is supposed to be providing enough deer habitat capability to support deer populations for both wolves and humans but is clearly failing. ADFG fieldwork in 2010 determined the Prince of Wales wolf population has declined sharply. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has exceeded its statutory deadline for its 90 Day Review of a petition by two organizations to list the Alexander Archipelago wolf. An announcement is expected as to whether it will list the species as threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act.

In addition to ADF&G’s proposal seking Intensive Management of wolves in Unit 3, it also presented the Board of Game with a similar proposal that would completely eradicate wolves from Gravina Island, which is adjacent to Ketchikan in Game Management Unit 1A.  That proposal is also fraught with problems, and again habitat loss from logging is the proximate cause.  There, the havestable deer would cost the state even more – about $40,000 to 50,000 each.

For more background on the multi-organization joint comments opposing Intensive Management of wolves in Southeast given during public testimony at the Board of Game meeting in Sitka, click here:

 

Joint comments (w-o attachments) to BoG, Unit-3 Wolf IM__5 NGOs__28Dec12

Joint comments (w-o attachments) to BoG, Unit-1A Wolf IM__5 NGOs__28Dec12

February 13, 2013 at 4:01 am