Last Stands adventurer, Natalie Dawson, has spent over a decade working as a research biologist in southeast Alaska, where she eventually received her PhD studying the charismatic mesofauna on Tongass Islands, focusing on endemic mammals. Her experience as a field biologist on northern Kuiu Island will inform the next Last Stands groundtruthing project.
Kuiu Island, southeast Alaska. August 12th, 2005. “I woke up this morning to more rain, but had to finish setting traps. Sitting in the old garage, thankful for the roof, I was working on hinges when I looked up and a large, sandy blond wolf walked past the open door. I stopped moving, so did the wolf. There was a momentary shared glance, and then we both started back to our projects. Another wolf walked by the door, then, another, until I had counted fourteen in total, large and small, most likely both adults and juveniles. It must have been the pack that I have been hearing each morning-I call them the Rowan wolves. It was so nice to meet them in person.”
I can make no personal claim to Kuiu Island-as I have only known it for fifteen years, but I am starting to understand some of its stories. Kuiu and I share the intimacy of strangers who have found common acquaintance in life experience. As I have grown as a scientist on this island, I have come to understand its diversity, its wildness, and its harvested spirit. Being one of thousands of islands in southeast Alaska, one might ask, “Why this island? Why is this important? What can we learn?” Kuiu Island is home to world’s largest known black bear population (3-5 black bears per square mile!). It is home to the northern-most stands of old-growth red cedar forest in North America. In the time I worked on the island, it was also home to at least three wolf packs. It was home to large logging operations during the 1980s and 1990s. Loggers built a small town in Rowan Bay, and the remnants of human habitats are where myself, and many small mammals, hunker during rainstorms, as there are no other permanent dwellings on the island, except for the Cape Decision lighthouse. The coastline is rugged, peppered with the Tlingit past, and because of its location and watersheds, boasts some of the longest silver salmon runs in southeast Alaska. It is possible to catch silvers in the creeks in late November. Trees-fish-bears-wolves-water-pine marten-peninsulas-roadless areas-timber harvest-recreation-stratification-Native claims-trade offs-these are the reasons I have been intrigued by Kuiu Island for so many years. One island can represent, in a microcosm, so much of what we are trying to understand about the impacts of large scale logging in southeast Alaska.
Like most of southeast Alaska, the protected forests of Kuiu Island are not the old-growth red cedar forests. Although much of the south-central part of the island is “wilderness”, the high-value, high-volume forests lay on the north part of the island-referred to by locals and the timber operators in the region, as “North Kuiu.” These forests concentrate the past timber harvest activities, entire watersheds are now entering dense second growth. North Kuiu is ringed with roads, and new timber harvest planned by the US Forest Service would remove an additional 2.5 million board feet of timber from new areas, crossing 9 class 1 streams (salmon!) and building over 10 miles of new road. The SeAlaska Corporation took another 4700 acres on North Kuiu near Security Bay, an active wolf denning area and old-growth cedar forest. Remaining old growth forest on North Kuiu is estimated at less than 30%. In 2017, the US Forest Service announced plans to move forward with the North Kuiu Timber Sale, relying on a decade-old Environmental Impact Statement.
We are looking forward to ground-truthing the 30% in 2018. We would like to inventory the remaining stands of old-growth forest, and survey for the creatures-wolves, bears, and pine marten-that highlight Kuiu’s important role in Tongass biodiversity. Please contact us to get involved!