Environmentalists said on Wednesday they plan to sue the Biden administration to hasten federal protections for a small and isolated population of wolves dwelling on the coastlines and islands of southeastern Alaska’s rainforest.
Three groups filed a notice of intent to sue over what they say is a delayed response to their 2020 petition seeking to safeguard the Alexander Archipelago wolves by listing them under the Endangered Species Act.
The wolves, numbering in the hundreds, are among the iconic animals of the Tongass National Forest. Genetically distinct, they prey primarily on Sitka black-tailed deer, but they feed on salmon and other aquatic creatures as well. They also swim between islands and exhibit other distinctive behaviors.
Their numbers have declined from past logging and road-building, with increased trapping and hunting posing a more recent threat, according to the groups’ listing petition. Climate change, which has diminished populations of deer and salmon as a food source, is another threat, as is inbreeding that reduces genetic diversity, according to the petition.
A lawsuit is warranted, the groups said on Wednesday, because threats to the wolves have intensified, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service – though it has begun reviewing the listing petition - has already missed deadlines.
“The agency has started the process, but the service has a pattern of delay in making these decisions. The Endangered Species Act has firm deadlines for a reason. The wolf can’t wait, it needs protection now,” Camila Cossio, an attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity, said by email.
The wolves are “an indicator of the health of the old-growth forest, which has been hammered by logging and road construction,” Cossio added.
The other petitioners are Alaska Rainforest Defenders and Defenders of Wildlife.
The campaign to list Alexander Archipelago wolves has long been part of the debate over the management of the Tongass, the largest U.S. national forest.
An earlier listing petition was denied in 2016. The Fish and Wildlife Service then cited what it said were stable numbers in British Columbia that offset problems in Alaska.
The new petition argues that the Alaska wolves should be considered separately and that their situation is dire. On Prince of Wales Island in the Tongass, a key part of their range, wolf numbers have dropped by 60% in 15 years, according to the petition.
A Fish and Wildlife Service spokesperson in Anchorage declined to comment, citing a policy against discussing pending litigation.
The Biden administration has taken other steps to increase Tongass environmental protections. In July, it announced the return of a ban on new roads in the forest, reversing a Trump administration policy.