An Alexander Archipelago wolf on Prince of Wales Island in 2015. (KRBD file photo)

Trappers reported taking almost as many wolves as had estimated to live on and around Prince of Wales Island. It’s a new record number of wolves — 165 taken in Unit 2 — which includes Prince of Wales and surrounding islands.

But residents behind the effort say it’s not cause for alarm. 

“The population is still healthy in my opinion,” said Mike Douville, a long-time resident hunter and trapper who sits on state and federal regional advisory boards. He says hunters target wolves because they’re competing for the same venison.

Store-bought meat is relatively expensive. He says supermarket beef runs around $10 a pound on the island.

Most people don’t buy meat — they choose to get their own,” he said by phone from his home in Craig.

A controversial rule change lifted the quota and residents seized this winter’s opportunity to target an unlimited number of the predators. The previous trapping record was set in 1996 when 131 animals were reported killed. But nobody’s seen anything close to this kind of harvest  –165 wolves from November 15 to January 15.

Until last year, the state had been setting a quota on the number of wolves that trappers could take in a season. But Tom Schumacher, regional supervisor for the state’s Wildlife Conservation division says managers didn’t say what the island’s wolf population should be.

So that left the Department of Fish and Game in the uncomfortable position of trying to determine what the appropriate level for that population was,” Schumacher said “And that’s really a decision that should be made by the public.”

The state and federal game and subsistence boards helped change that. They supported scrapping the hard cap and setting a population goal: between 150 and 200 wolves. That was in line with the most recent population projection from fall 2018: an estimated 170 wolves. 

But twice as many trappers came out in force to take nearly that many in two months.

“I think the one thing that took us by surprise was the amount of effort this year,” Schumacher said.

Conservationists are alarmed that managers allowed this to happen. 

It’s shocking because it just looks like a large over-harvest,” Alaska Wildlife Alliance Executive Director Nicole Schmitt said. The Anchorage-based advocacy group is one of several that’s petitioned the federal government to list the Alexander Archipelago wolf as endangered.

“The important thing to remember is that everybody wants a balanced population and that ecosystem does include predators,” she said.

Conservationists have argued that the Prince of Wales Island wolves are a distinct population deserving extra protection. But the federal government disagreed — most recently in 2016 when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service denied the petition

There are still wolves around, residents and biologists say. An uncounted number had pups last spring. And Douville says he’s seeing signs around Craig where he lives.

But the deer remain scarce though he doesn’t just blame predators.

There’s other reasons for deer going down as their habitat diminished,” Douville said, referring to the commercial logging’s legacy left from decades of widespread clear cuts. “You know, with the regrowth of thousands and thousands of acres that’s not productive deer habitat anymore.”

He added: “And old growth logging continues — but we’re opposed to it.”

What happens next for the wolves isn’t clear. Fish and Game bases its population estimate on DNA analysis of hair samples. That takes months to collect and send to a lab for analysis. In setting the next season, wildlife managers will be looking at the fall 2019 count when it’s available this summer.

“And we can obviously subtract 165 from that,” Schumacher said. “Depending on what we determine, we could have no season or a very short season.”

That’s a decision that will be closely scrutinized by resident deer hunters and conservationists alarmed by the loss of at least 165 Alexander Archipelago wolves on and around Prince of Wales Island.