AD Main Menu

Federal managers launch new effort to solve cow conundrum on remote Alaska islands

Yereth Rosen
A lone bull stands on eroded dunes on Wosnesenski Island. Wosnesenski and Chirikof Islands, southwest of Kodiak Island, have approxomately 1,000 cattle, formerly domesticated, that are now mostly wild, and the US Fish and Wildlife Service is trying to figure out what to do with them.
USFWS / Steve Ebbert
Sandy dunes resulting from overgrazing on Wosnesenski Island. Wosnesenski and Chirikof Islands, southwest of Kodiak Island, have approxomately 1,000 cattle, formerly domesticated, that are now mostly wild, and the US Fish and Wildlife Service is trying to figure out what to do with them.
USFWS / Steve Ebbert
A bull stands on a former ranch road on Chirikof Island. Wosnesenski and Chirikof Islands, southwest of Kodiak Island, have approxomately 1,000 cattle, formerly domesticated, that are now mostly wild, and the US Fish and Wildlife Service is trying to figure out what to do with them.
USFWS / Steve Ebbert
A lone bull stands on eroded dunes on Wosnesenski Island. Wosnesenski and Chirikof Islands, southwest of Kodiak Island, have approxomately 1,000 cattle, formerly domesticated, that are now mostly wild, and the US Fish and Wildlife Service is trying to figure out what to do with them.
USFWS / Steve Ebbert
A bull on Wosnesenski Island. Wosnesenski and Chirikof Islands, southwest of Kodiak Island, have approxomately 1,000 cattle, formerly domesticated, that are now mostly wild, and the US Fish and Wildlife Service is trying to figure out what to do with them.
USFWS / Steve Ebbert

Know what to do with 1,000 wild cattle roaming two faraway Alaska islands? If so, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service wants to hear from you.

The agency is soliciting proposals for coping with approximately 800 unattended cattle free to roam on Chirikof Island and about 200 more on Wosnesenski Island. Both islands, southwest of Kodiak Island and far away from large communities, are part of the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge; neither island is natural habitat for cattle.

The cows and bulls roaming those areas are descendants of animals brought to remote Chirikof in the 1880s and to even more remote Wosnesenski in 1938. They have become famous inhabitants of the islands. But the current cattle situation cannot continue, said refuge superintendent Steve Delehanty, who on Thursday announced the start a formal environmental-review process to find a solution to the cow conundrum.

The animals have chomped and trampled plants to the point where native vegetation is altered. Salmon and bird habitat have been damaged, too. “Parts of both islands have been grazed enough that they’re just bare soil,” Delehanty said. In areas where there still is vegetation, it’s shorter than it should be, he said. “It’s ankle-high rather than knee-high,” he said. Archaeological sites are at risk of being trampled by the cattle, he added.

Photos from the islands show areas where the terrain has been reduced to sand dunes, and service officials have found bones of cattle that perished.

The saga of the island cattle, among the most famous of the non-native species introduced to vulnerable Alaska sites, is an old story. Some historians believe the animals are descendants of cattle brought by Russian colonizers. Both herds were once managed as parts of separate far-flung ranches, which were seen in their heydays as romantic outposts of American agricultural life.

But commercial ranching on the islands had been abandoned by the mid-1990s. Now the formerly domesticated cattle are running wild, with no caretaker and no clear means of support, other than the native vegetation they're damaging, Delehanty said. There have been stories of cattle coming to beaches to eat kelp, and stories of animals getting stranded and dying in winter snows, but none have been verified, he said. The now-feral cattle are viewed in varying ways, sometimes with affection and sometimes with “outrage,” he said. “People say, ‘Why haven’t you done something about it?’”

The service, in fact, has tried to do something about it in the past. There have been numerous attempts to relocate the cattle, none of which succeeded.

About a decade ago, the service gave permits to one entrepreneur who planned to barge the cows and bulls off the island to become part of a specialty beef operation. The operator, Tim Jacobson, managed to load about 40 onto a barge that sailed into the Gulf of Alaska, but there were numerous mishaps that created a wave of bad publicity. The barge, and the cattle crowded on it, got temporarily stranded in Old Harbor. The animals were eventually off-loaded at Kodiak, but the operation ended with a pile of unpaid bills and a lawsuit filed by disgruntled creditors.

The legal muddle continues, Delehanty said. It is not even clear who now owns the cattle, if anyone, he said. The new planning effort seeks to resolve that question.

Not everyone agreed at the time that the cattle needed to be moved. Animal-rights advocates and then-Gov. Frank Murkowski found common ground in criticizing the Fish and Wildlife Service and its cattle-relocation campaign.

"These cattle have been out there for over 120 years and are an extraordinary strain of animal, free of disease and growth hormones," Murkowski said in a Dec. 3, 2003 news release. "Our position is to leave the cows alone ... We hope that we will be able to pursue a solution that will allow the cattle on Chirikof Island to stay alive and well. Let's leave one island in Alaska for the cattle."

This time around, Delehanty says, the Fish and Wildlife Service is trying a new approach to the island-cattle problem. Instead of deciding that the animals must be moved and seeking a way to do that, the service is casting a wider net for possible solutions, he said. “This is one where we’re trying to start at the beginning,” he said. “I hope people will take advantage of the opportunity to give input and help us find the right solution.”

The scoping process kicked off by the Fish and Wildlife Service will include open houses in Homer and Kodiak. The service has set a Jan. 31 deadline for cattle-solution suggestions that will get further review as the environmental studies proceed.

Contact Yereth Rosen at yereth(at)alaskadispatch.com