Photographer Stephanie Jurries says that wolf encounters on Prince of Wales Island that last long enough for photo interactions are rare but that both times she had long encounters, she happened to be carrying her camera. She says that “having a wolf come towards you when you are unarmed is legitimately scary.”
I let my kayak gently edge up to the familiar, gravelly beach. It’s so calm that the only disturbance on the water is the minuscule wake pushed ashore by my landing. While the horizon of spruce and hemlock, the smell of seaweed, and the calls of eagles and ravens are familiar, one thing is conspicuously missing from this beach—deer tracks.
Arriving on this small southeast Alaska island in previous years, I noted how fresh the deer sign was, not whether it was present or absent. But that was before wolves swam over just a few short years ago. They stumbled onto a veritable deer paradise, and everything changed.
This place had been a destination for deer hunters like me for years. Otherwise, the deer had enjoyed a relatively predator-free existence for as long as anyone could remember.
But within just five years, a small pack of wolves decimated the island’s deer population, which had neared 1,000. One might expect that the wolves moved on after eliminating their primary food source, but they did not. Instead, being creative and resilient creatures, they stayed and began eating sea otters, which are abundant. While not optimal, this unusual diet has sustained them. So few deer remain that no one bothers to hunt here anymore.
A scenario similar to this, but on a much larger scale, is what southeast Alaska residents are trying to avoid. Wolves in this region are referred to as Alexander Archipelago wolves, in reference to the chain of about 1,100 islands stretching from Ketchikan in the south to Yakutat in the north.
The fate of these wolves is currently in question as deer hunters, wolf trappers, agency officials, and environmental groups passionately debate how they should be managed. At the heart of this is Article 8, Section 4 of the Alaska State Constitution: “Sustained Yield—Fish, forests, wildlife, grasslands, and all other replenishable resources belonging to the State shall be utilized, developed, and maintained on the sustained yield principle, subject to preferences among beneficial uses.” While most people agree on the principle of “sustained yield,” reconciling which “preferences” should be prioritized often proves to be a sticking point.
Specifically, regarding wolves, it gets complicated quickly. Wolves are major predators of Sitka black-tailed deer. This places them in direct competition with hunters seeking to enjoy a hunt and fill their freezers. Wolves here are primarily hunted and trapped to help manage the deer population; however, these activities also provide some income from wolf pelt sales and works of art. But there are other major factors that impact both wolf and deer populations, including timber harvests, forest management, winter severity, and climate change.
Wolves are a charismatic top predator that have become a symbol of wildness for the conservation movement. Aldo Leopold famously wrote about the conflict between humans and wolves in his 1948 essay, “Thinking Like a Mountain,” where he reflected upon shooting a wolf. Many historians credit this essay as a milestone in the modern-day environmental movement. To this day, wolves elicit an emotional response from so many of us. Love them or hate them, wolves attract a disproportionate amount of attention.
Within southeast Alaska, the location getting the lion’s share of attention is Prince of Wales (POW) Island. Slightly larger than the state of Delaware, POW is home to around 5,500 people, who are outnumbered by deer by more than 10 to 1. As such, deer are inextricably linked to the culture of the island’s residents, who depend on the animals as a valuable source of healthy protein. But in recent years, hunters have observed more wolves and fewer deer. Filling the freezer is taking longer, and hunters must invest more effort.
The two most straightforward options for Alaska Department of Fish & Game (ADF&G) officials charged with managing for a sustainable population of deer are to limit how many individuals are taken by hunters, and to reduce the number taken by wolves. To achieve the latter, the wolf population is managed through an annual trapping season which has been hotly debated on POW and in the courts for the better part of three decades. In 1993, and again in 2011, environmental organizations argued that wolves warranted being listed as threatened or endangered but both efforts failed after several years in court.
Meanwhile, many hunters and trappers claim the biologists are under-counting the wolves, while environmental groups claim their estimates are too high. Both groups question the state’s methods of estimating the wolf population and have different ideas about what defines a sustainable wolf population.
The wolf population is estimated using genetic data gathered from “hair boards”—small pieces of wood with barbed wire attached. The boards are scented to attract wolves, and when the animals rub up against them, they leave behind a DNA sample in the form of shed hair. An independent lab processes the hair to determine the number of unique individuals, allowing biologists to extrapolate a population estimate. For many years, managers established a harvest quota that was a percentage (varying from 20 to 30 percent) of the most recent population estimate. Once the trappers approached this targeted number, the season would end.
Then, in 2019, ADF&G made a change to their management approach that caused a dramatic shift in wolf harvest levels. Instead of the traditional quota method, they switched to a time-based method. Trappers would only be limited by the calendar and could take as many wolves as they were able to during a fixed period. This change stemmed from trappers claiming that previous regulations made harvesting the wolves too difficult. According to a press release from the U.S. Forest Service, the trappers said that the quota system “limited their flexibility to plan, and at times has forced them to go out in unfavorable weather conditions to close their traplines in compliance with emergency orders.”
At a meeting with trappers, just prior to the new rules taking effect, Tom Schumacher, ADF&G regional supervisor, took questions and comments. Many in the crowd expressed their lack of confidence in the state’s numbers. According to Schumacher, they said, “Your population estimates are too low and we are going to show you. We’re going to get 200 wolves.” The agency’s total population estimate at that time was only 147-202 wolves.
Schumacher countered by saying, “If you do that, you’re going to attract a lot of unwanted attention.” He later explained, “I suggested that they not do that in the first year. But that’s what they did.”
The trappers, convinced that the state’s numbers were low, doubled the number of trappers from the previous year. With this increased effort, and no limits other than two months’ time, they harvested 165 wolves. This number seemed to shock nearly everyone, except for the trapping community.
Schumacher told me, “That created a lot of public attention. It got us an ESA [Endangered Species Act] petition and a lawsuit.”
Indeed, another petition to list the wolves came just six months later, filed jointly by four environmental groups (two based in Alaska and two from the Lower 48). Soon after, a lawsuit was filed against the State of Alaska by Joel Bennett (a former Board of Game member) and The Alaska Wildlife Alliance, challenging the state’s management of POW wolves on the basis that it violated the sustained yield constitutional provision.
In 2021, 64 wolves were taken—a number that many of the trappers felt was too low. However, attorney Camila Cossío from the Center for Biological Diversity (one of the groups currently petitioning for ESA protection) argues, “These threatened wolves can’t sustain this high level of killing. They are already suffering from inbreeding and are hit hard by trapping, logging and habitat loss. These wolves desperately need the protections of the Endangered Species Act if they’re going to survive.”
Through all of this controversy, one word keeps getting repeated to me from the people on the ground on POW—“habitat.” While wolves are the center of the controversy, many (but not all) argue that the most critical challenge facing deer is actually habitat loss. Old growth logging has taken place on the island for over a century, most intensely since the 1950s. According to a 2014 ADF&G report about POW, “Counting national forest, state, and private land, over 300,000 acres of old growth forest have been logged, and over 5,000 miles of roads have been built.” As these forests grow back, they form dense stands of trees that, after 30 years or so, completely block out light to the forest floor, creating a monoculture of moss and lichens that is totally lacking in deer food. This habitat is referred to as a “stem exclusion zone.” The old growth stands that once provided forage for deer, as well as shelter from the deep winter snows, have been reduced by as much as 40 percent. The report further concludes, “Consequently, it appears that much formerly productive deer habitat in Unit 2 [POW] will remain unproductive for many decades and the population will remain vulnerable to die-offs during winters with deep snow.”
This finding was corroborated by a 2015 study conducted by wildlife biologist Sophie Gilbert who modeled six scenarios with varying levels of old growth logging, road construction, wolf harvest, and winter severity. All of the scenarios led to fewer deer. Even in what one would think would be the best-case scenario for deer (wolf suppression, no additional logging, mild winters), the deer numbers still declined for 40 years due to the effects of the stem exclusion zone. Interestingly, the study also showed a modest decline in wolves as well, across all tested scenarios. In other words, both deer and wolves have a tough prognosis, with habitat loss as the root cause.
Jim Baichtal has lived and hunted deer on POW for over 30 years. A geologist for the Forest Service, he has also participated in many field research projects. His long-term perspective and time on the ground have garnered him respect by many on POW. He recently met with a group of biologists and managers, one of whom was ADF&G Commissioner Doug Vincent-Lang, who bluntly asked him, “What’s the problem with wolves on POW?” Baichtal’s response was equally blunt, “You do not have a wolf problem, you have a habitat problem.”
Baichtal is devoted to learning about deer and keeping their population healthy. He sees a balance between limiting wolf numbers and working to improve deer habitat as a way to get there. He doesn’t believe that ADF&G is approaching the issue with the right philosophy. He feels that they are managing more with a nod to timber rather than to deer, and the locals are paying the price. “Rural residents are beginning to express concern; they can no longer get enough deer to put on their tables and fill the freezer. This is becoming a huge issue. The Forest Service needs to start managing the landscape for the deer.”
However, Baichtal is not in favor of an ESA listing. He worries that such a designation would put an end to any forest management. “The listing of the wolf to me is a horrible concept, because if we no longer have the ability to go in and harvest the older second growth to create some better habitat for deer, I think our deer numbers are going to continue to plummet.”
Another local hunter and former logger, Michael Kampnich, agrees, although he acknowledges that to him it isn’t just about habitat, especially in the near term. He explained, “I don’t think it’s any one issue. It’s prey, it’s habitat.” He continued, “There is a loss of forest habitat that is precipitating a lot of this. In the long term there’s no question in my mind that habitat is actually the bigger issue, because if you can’t produce deer, you’re starting out in a hole already.”
Not everyone agrees with this viewpoint. Kampnich acknowledges, “Some people are starting to come around to understand that habitat is a significant part of the problem. But there’s a lot of people that still believe that if we can reduce the wolf population to some degree, the deer will bounce back.”
Elijah Winrod, another longtime hunter and trapper on POW, is in this camp. While agreeing that habitat loss is a part of the problem, he still lays most of the blame on wolves. He told me, “There’s examples around here where there’s hundreds of square miles of old growth where the deer are suffering equally as to where it’s been logged because the wolves have overpopulated it. So, I think that it’s a combination of issues, but to say that wolves aren’t the main problem just
Of all the people I spoke with from POW, Mike Douville has seen the most. A Tlingit man and lifelong resident, he can remember prior to statehood (1959) when a $50 bounty was paid for a wolf pelt, and wolves were poisoned. He has seen populations of wolves and deer go up and down over the past 70+ years. Currently, he serves on the Southeast Alaska Subsistence Regional Advisory Council where he gives recommendations to the Alaska Board of Game, the group that ultimately approves and directs management policy.
Douville has been working for decades to help residents who want to live a subsistence lifestyle by advocating for sustainable yield principles—and that goes for not just deer or wolves, but for the habitat they depend on. “Preserving old growth stock, that’s one of the top things on my agenda. That is something that we really need to do, but it’s pretty hard to convince your congressional delegation that that needs to happen. They seem to be promoting it, along with the governor—that we need to continue cutting old growth.”
It would be easier if this were a simple story of wolves vs. deer like on my little island, but it is not. Whether wolves are listed or not, a key issue on POW and throughout much of southeast Alaska remains habitat loss due to old growth logging. And when it comes to the restoration of old growth temperate rainforest, the only solution for that is time—and lots of it.
As Douville shared with me, “We’ve been doing the best we can to stop the old growth logging. The tribes are against it. It just needs time to recover.”
But the kind of time required for this recovery is measured in decades or generations, not months or years. It is called old growth for a reason. It may be a sad reality for POW deer hunters that the heyday of easy hunting might not return until their grandkids are hunters. In the meantime, wolves will inevitably remain in the crosshairs and in the courts.