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AK: Where the wolves are on Prince of Wales Island

When you approach learning in the way they do at the three-room school in Hollis, students need more than desks, books and high-speed broadband.

They need raingear.

So, neatly hanging on the porch at the Hollis school are enough hand-me-down jackets and rain bibs – the sturdy oilskins – with boots, too, for every girl and boy in this 100-inches-a-year town.

“Equipment doesn’t prevent us from getting out in the field,” teacher Lisa Cates said.

Once dressed for success, these students follow their curiosity – even if it takes them into the depths of the rainforest. They enlisted as citizen scientists, taking on a small supporting role in a major Alaska Department of Fish and Game study of Prince of Wales Island wolves. Led by research biologist Gretchen Roffler, the study aims to estimate the island’s wolf population at a critical time.

“It is important to have an estimate of wolf abundance on Prince of Wales Island and this is mainly so that we can monitor population trends over time,” Roffler says. The estimate also provides a range for the number of animals on Prince of Wales, and that is used to establish a wolf harvest quota.

Educators in three island communities said joining the study in even a small way has opened a door to a new homegrown learning experience. Students in Hollis, as well as Klawock and Craig, have now seen wildlife research up close, an opportunity funded in part by a grant from the Southeast Alaska Small Schools Math Network.

“I thought it would be great for the kids to learn what it’s like to be a biologist. Maybe some of them would be interested in a career in wildlife biology,” she said. “If so it would be great for them to know what’s involved.”

Every Thursday morning last fall, a research team of 11 Hollis students followed a strict research regimen. They traveled overland through forest and muskeg. In the lush rainforests of Prince of Wales Island, even with the best of intentions, it’s rare to see a wolf. (Klawock students did record a wolf howl on one field outing.)

“They’re just so cryptic,” Roffler said. “Wolves are really renowned as one of the most difficult species to survey. This is especially true where there’s less snow cover and dense forest.”

But generations of scientists have faced the problem of hard-to-track animals before, so there’s a workaround. It’s a method known as capture-recapture. In this instance, it draws on the power of statistics, DNA analysis and carefully scripted field protocols.

This is where student learning leapfrogged from the classroom to real-world science. Their introductory science lessons in genetics and DNA structure suddenly had a real-world application.

As one student from Hollis put it, “It gave me a different view of the science field rather than being a scientist in a room. It really engages you with what you’re studying.”

The study collects and analyzes samples of wolf hair – the follicle is a readily obtained and reliable source of genetic data – at a network of wolf monitoring stations.

For their effort, students now have the satisfaction of knowing they contributed real data to a project that matters in their communities.

“Science can be kind of abstract for kids. Here’s something that shows how genetics and DNA can have a direct impact on something local people care very dearly about,” Klawock teacher Corby Weyhmiller said. “You can see it directly impacting their lives.”

Wolf numbers

In recent years, there’s been a lingering uncertainty about the health of Prince of Wales Island wolf numbers. Based on these concerns, in 2015 activists petitioned the federal government to list the wolf as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service launched a scientific review in response and soon ruled that listing the Prince of Wales Island wolf wasn’t warranted. But the agency’s reviewers did acknowledge some uncertainty about the island’s wolves.

“The review really underscored these concerns about the long-term viability of wolves,” Roffler said.

In the field

The wolf hair snares installed in the field are quite simple. They’re made by tacking a few strands of barbed wire to a plywood board that is then doused in a remarkably pungent liquid lure. Just how pungent? Some students say they ruined clothes by getting too close to the bait. And even though the Hollis School stored its lure in layers of plastic bags, in a cooler and then in an outbuilding, the scent escaped into the schoolyard.

Michael Kampnich of Craig is a staffer with The Nature Conservancy who has been assisting the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. He monitors a network of hair snares and introduced students to the study protocols.

A successful study needs plenty of data, and that’s time consuming work for biologists.

“But citizen scientists are able to help out, and there’s no limit to the curiosity and energy of a classroom of high school biology students,” Kampnich said.

His enthusiasm for the project has inspired him to inspire others.

“We couldn’t have done it without Michael’s support,” Cates said.

Kampnich first came to Prince of Wales Island to work as a logger during the timber heydays. Later, he served as harbormaster and now fishes commercially. His experience with communities across the island has also helped nurture a “shared learning” environment between the Alaska Department of Fish and Game and local people – whether they be hunters, trappers or wolf enthusiasts – who care deeply about the future of the island’s wolves.

“He has this broad perspective that not very many people have and I really appreciate that,” Roffler said.

Wolves, deer, forest

The forests of Prince of Wales Island supported an industrial-scale timber industry for several decades. Clear-cut forests are now growing back. But unlike old-growth forests, these returning trees are densely packed – so much so that they block sunlight from the forest floor. This limits the growth of the plants, such as blueberries, that support the island’s Sitka black-tailed deer. This, in turn, can have a spin-off effect on wolf populations. The ecological changes underway in the forest underscore the relationship between the island’s wolves, deer, and local subsistence tradition – and why the Alaska Department of Fish and Game and its project partners are committed to getting it right.

It’s the most comprehensive DNA-based population estimate ever for Prince of Wales Island wolves. The department is working with a lab to analyze the hair samples collected in the fall of 2016. The 2016 fall population estimate is expected to be complete by August. Alaska Department of Fish and Game wildlife managers will then use the estimate as they establish a wolf harvest quota for the 2017-2018 harvest season. The latest wolf count, from 2015, estimated a population range of 69–167.

Objectivity comes from solid research, and Alaska Department of Fish and Game regional supervisor Ryan Scott said the ongoing wolf project includes a network of 83 hair-snare monitoring stations across the island.

“The number of sample locations we’re using is quite extensive,” Scott said. “We believe our data is very representative of the population of wolves on Prince of Wales Island.”

Field staff from the Hydaburg Cooperative Association, the federally recognized tribe; Alaska Department of Fish and Game; U.S. Forest Service and The Nature Conservancy manage most of the data collection.

“People do love wolves and they also hate them. People have very strong opinions,” Roffler said. “What we’re trying to do is find the best information and be as objective as possible in our decision-making process.”