This deer season has been the worst in recent memory for a lot of hunters on Prince of Wales Island. In the past, large-scale industrial logging damaged important winter habitat. And some locals believe there’s another reason there’s so few deer on the island: too many wolves.
From Alaska’s’ Energy Desk, Elizabeth Jenkins reports how changes to the forest caused tensions over the wolf population to flare-up.
Go anywhere in Craig and you’re likely to overhear bits of conversation about the deer season.
That includes the local diner, the kind of place that displays its homemade pies behind glass.
Mike Douville has just returned from a long day of hunting. Today, he bagged one deer. But he said it’s taken him longer to fill his freezer this year. He remembers more plentiful seasons. And that’s not the only change he’s seen on the island during his lifetime.
Douville said nearly all the big trees were standing when he was young. The first logging camps were just getting started.
“And the island was pristine,” he said. “There was no clear cuts on it … So I’ve watched it turn from what it is today.”
Large swaths of trees have been logged here since the 1960s. It’s left poor habitat for deer and the other wildlife. Without a canopy of old growth, snow can easily fall to the ground — obscuring important feeding spots.
Douville serves on the regional advisory council that makes recommendations to the federal subsistence board and the state.
And he said finding fewer deer on the island is affecting people’s livelihood.
“This is rural Alaska. It’s bush Alaska,” he said. “We don’t like to buy meat. It’s eight or nine bucks a pound.”
Still, he said logging is just one factor. The other is a rapidly growing wolf population. The wolves are devouring the deer.
“If you’re going to harvest deer, you have to harvest wolves,” he said.
But not everyone agrees killing wolves is a good idea.
In 2011, conservation groups petitioned the feds to protect the Alexander Archipelago wolf under the Endangered Species Act. At the time, it was estimated there were about 89 wolves living in the unit — less than half of what was there 20 years before. But the wolves didn’t wind up receiving additional federal protections.
Instead, there have been joint-efforts with the state to stabilize the population, and the numbers of wolves has been increasing, to now around 231 from 2016. Still, it’s not easy getting a handle on how many wolves there are.
Mike Kampnich is driving his pickup truck to the top of a snowy ridge. He makes this rough ride regularly — collecting hair samples from the Alexander Archipelago wolf.
Kampnich used to be a logger when he arrived on the island more than 30 years ago. But now, he works for the The Nature Conservancy.
“You know, some of the guys I worked for in the past. They’re like, you work for who?” he said.
We stop at one of the hair-board sites. It’s essentially, a piece of plywood nailed to the ground and rigged with barbed wire. A stinky goo is placed on top. The wolves like to rub up against it. So it’s the perfect comb for capturing fur.
Kampnich is careful to cover his tracks as we walk over to it.
“Now you got to look really closely and see if there’s any hair,” he said, putting on his glasses to get a better look.
But there are no strands tangled in the barbwire. This is just one of 21 locations he’ll check on the island over the course of two days. When he does hit the jackpot, the hair is sent off to a lab to be analyzed by the state.
The Alaska Department of Fish & Game uses the animal’s DNA to help calculate the wolf population. A percentage of that becomes the wolf harvest quota — the number of wolves that can be trapped or hunted each year.
Kampnich said it can be a touchy subject, locally. On a couple of occasions, he’s seen hair boards vandalized and trail cams disappear.
“It’s really frustrating,” he said. “But you know, some people will mess with your stuff.”
But wolf hunters have helped Kampnich, too. They’ve shown him good spots to place the hair boards.
“I’ve helped him quite a bit because I’ve lived here. I’ve trapped wolves. I know how to do that,” said Mike Douville. He wants there to be accurate wolf population estimates. But, although he’s helped Kampnich in the past, he thinks using just the hairboards misses the mark.
The wolf population, he said, is bigger than the science alone suggests. So the wolf quota should reflect that.
“I don’t think anybody here is interested in wiping them out,” he said. “We’ve always got one or two that might think that way but for the most part they’re OK with wolves. Just not so many.”
Douville would like to see more local knowledge factored in to how the state gages the number of wolves. But he said getting the wolf population figured out isn’t the only step to securing a future for the island’s deer.
He thinks big timber sales on Prince of Wales should become a thing of the past — even if that means the last remaining sawmill dries up.
“I’m not willing to sacrifice this island to keep it running,” he said. “I think there’s a limit on how much you donate to the cause and I think that we’re there.”
Douville said he wants to live on the island from his childhood. It includes a healthy forest for humans, deer … and wolves.
This report originally appeared on the KTOO website. You can follow the link here.