More than 11 years ago, the cattle on a remote island south of Kodiak became a national cause célèbre, when a federal agency ordered their removal as an invasive species and a rancher made an ill-fated attempt to bring them to market.
On Monday, representatives of the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge, the agency that administers Chirikof Island, offered an update to a handful of local residents at the Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge Visitors Center.
But as to what officials will do about the cattle still overrunning the island, “That’s the one question I’m not going to be able to answer,” AMNWR manager Steve Delehanty said.
Visiting from their headquarters in Homer, Delehanty and AMNWR wildlife biologist Steve Ebbert briefed listeners on results of studies carried out at Chirikof in 2014 and what is planned for this year.
An October aerial survey found more than 2,000 cattle there, far more than the 700 to 800 Delehanty expected.
“It blew me away, anyway,” he said.
Other recent studies included work by a grazing expert, an ornithologist, an agronomist and an ecologist. Delehanty said their findings and stakeholder input will help shape a draft plan for the future of the cattle and the island.
“It isn’t that we haven’t been doing anything,” he said.
After a July 2014 visit, National Resource Conservation Service range specialist Karin Sonnen found that the state of soil and erosion on Chirikof’s 29,000 acres “points to an unhealthy range ecosystem.” She said the land, if properly managed, could support a herd of about 500 cattle.
In a paper published in 2014, ornithologist Jack Withrow reported that he found a paucity of breeding pairs of native birds, probably caused by the non-native cattle and foxes.
Russian fur traders are thought to have brought the cattle in the mid-19th century as a source of food. Trappers probably introduced the foxes in 1891.
While AMNWR continues to work on a plan for the cattle, action on the foxes will begin soon.
“We’re going to eradicate foxes from Chirikof this summer,” Eggert said.
The work, set for May through September, will involve hundreds of traps, he said. Eggert noted that foxes have been eradicated successfully from 40 Alaska islands since 1950, leading to recovery of native seabirds. He said the teams who will carry out the work also have recent experience ridding Poa Island of rabbits in 2010-2011, Sud Island of Marmots in 2010, and Rat Island of rats in 2008.
Although the refuge could legally sell fox fur collected this summer, Eggers said the undesirable summer pelts will not compete with private trappers.
But as rancher Tim Jacobson discovered, removing the bovine population could prove less straightforward. His attempt in late 2003 ran into a string of difficulties including rough winter weather, unscheduled stops, and public controversy.
When the first boatload of Chirikof cattle got sidetracked to a holding site in Middle Bay, observers near and far argued over whether to leave the cattle on the island, instead of removing or eradicating them.
About the same time, mad cow disease was confirmed in the Pacific Northwest, heightening interest in the potential of an isolated cattle stock.
Jacobson soon abandoned an attempt that generated more lawsuits than profit.
Delehanty acknowledged several attempts at exploiting the herd have failed.
“If there was a going business there the last 50 years or so, it wouldn’t be public land,” he said.
He said ownership of the herd is a legal question outside the purview of the refuge’s current work of exploring options for the Chirikof cattle. Possibilities include eradication, some sort of managed grazing, or no action at all.
“No matter what (we decide), some people won’t like it,” Delehanty said.
He hopes a draft plan will go before the public for comment sometime this year, but could not guess how long the review process will take before any action is decided on and taken.