ANCHORAGE — There are herds of cattle on a pair of remote Alaska islands that have survived for decades despite any number of threats to their existence.
The animals have been abandoned. They’ve been forced to adapt to brutal winters. And they go for months at a time eating little more than seaweed that washes ashore.
But today, the resilient cows face a threat from those who say the herds are battering the habitat of native wildlife such as seabirds and salmon.
“The cattle are really doing a number,” said Patrick Saltonstall, an archaeologist who works in the area. “In some parts, the creeks aren’t even creeks anymore. They’re just like quicksand. They’ve just been pulverized, pounded into nothing.”
Federal wildlife managers have asked this month for public comment as they seek to remove nearly 1,000 animals from the uninhabited, isolated islands in southwest Alaska.
“The purpose is to stop the grazing on these two islands,” said biologist Steve Ebbert with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service at the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge. “We know we have a problem.”
The deadline to submit ideas for what to do with the herds is Jan. 31, with public meetings scheduled for Monday in Homer and Jan. 7 in Kodiak. The public will have additional opportunity to comment later as final plans are developed.
Ebbert said some ideas submitted already include killing the cattle and salvaging the meat, removing or sterilizing the animals or introducing predators such as bears and wolves.
Cattle were first brought to Chirikof Island, which is about 400 miles from Anchorage, in the late 1880s to provide beef for whaling crews and fox traders. They arrived on Wosnesenski Island, almost 600 miles from the state’s largest city, in the late 1930s, brought by a family that moved on decades ago.
There are now about 750 cattle on Chirikof and another 200 on Wosnesenski. Over the years, adventuresome ranchers added a variety of beef and dairy breeds to Chirikof, resulting in the sturdy hybrid found there today.
The last rancher to try a hand with the herd was Tim Jacobson, a cowboy who a decade ago planned to sell the cattle as range-fed beef or superior breeding stock. But the challenge was always getting the animals off an island with no natural harbors in a region plagued by harsh weather and unpredictable winds.
Jacobson managed to barge out about 40 head of cattle. But he failed to pay for various services from Kodiak Island 80 miles to the north, such as cattle transport and supplying supplemental feed, according to a lawsuit filed against him. Jacobson was a no-show at his 2005 trial, and he has since vanished.
With his departure, the federal government was left without someone to carry out its long anticipated plans to remove the cows from Chirikof.
If the Chirikof cows could be managed there would be no problem, but that’s probably never going to happen again given the location, according to Saltonstall, curator of archaeology at the Alutiiq Museum in Kodiak.
Saltonstall was among researchers who spent time on Chirikof last summer for various studies, including documentation of archaeological sites from prehistoric human populations that once lived there. He said the cattle have damaged archaeological sites. Some areas are so overgrazed, he said, that there is no grass to hold down the sand, which blows away, leaving bare rock in places.
Another researcher on the summer team was Jack Withrow, an ornithologist who looked at Chirikof’s bird populations. There are fewer birds on Chirikof than on nearby islands, a fact likely related to the presence of the cattle and a population on non-native arctic foxes, said Withrow, collection manager for the bird department at the University of Alaska Museum of the North in Fairbanks.
Ebbert, the federal biologist, says restoring the environment means removing both non-native species, starting with cattle since they are the more destructive force, mowing down beach rye and other grasses.
Withrow agrees that cattle herds are problem, saying without them “it would be closer to its natural state. In the absence of cows and foxes, some bird populations would probably increase.”