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Compass: Loss of camp at Round Island cuts research, education, wildlife viewing opportunities

Terry Johnson is marine recreation and tourism specialist with the University of Alaska Sea Grant Marine Advisory Program. For many years he guided educational and commercial wildlife viewing trips on Round Island and the Togiak National Wildlife Refuge.
Photo courtesy of Terry Johnson
In this photo provided by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, hundreds of walruses line the beaches, July 25, 2005, at the Walrus Islands State Game Sanctuary, Alaska, on Round Island in the Bering Sea.
Alaska Dept. of Fish and Game

The Alaska Department of Fish and Game recently announced that its camp at Round Island in the Walrus Islands State Game Sanctuary will be closed after this year. Walrus Islands was the first state game sanctuary created after statehood and, along with McNeil River, Round Island is the crown jewel of the state's wildlife sanctuary program.

Visitors come from around the world simply to sit quietly and watch the animals. Most of the walrus photos you have ever seen were taken at Round Island, and many wildlife film crews have come to shoot footage for nature programs.

Because visitors have been allowed only when DFG personnel are on the island, camp closure means the end of the successful visitor program that has worked well for the last 39 years and brought hundreds of thousands of dollars to local businesses.

Round Island has also been important to research and education. Recipients of the DFG notice included more than 60 individuals who conduct walrus, seabird or sea lion research, have done archeology, or conduct youth science and cultural programs on Round Island.

Perhaps most importantly, as its name implies it's a sanctuary where walruses, sea lions and seabirds can rest, protected from disturbance.

Walruses spend most of their time at sea, and the majority haul out on sea ice. But a few thousand adult males linger in the southern Bering Sea after the main population heads north in the spring, and between feeding forays they rest on any of four remote terrestrial haulouts. Historically several others were used but as motorized boat travel increased -- bringing sport hunting, head hunting for ivory and disturbance by curious boaters -- one after another those haulouts were abandoned.

The Legislature created the Walrus Islands sanctuary to prevent the herds from forsaking Bristol Bay altogether, and the effort was successful. Of the four terrestrial haulouts, Round Island has been the most consistently used and is also the most accessible and best suited to managed visitation. Still, it's not an easy place to visit -- it requires two flights, one long open ocean ride in a small boat, landing on a wave-swept boulder beach, and usually several days of primitive camping until the next boat comes.

Walrus are not the only draw. Birders come to see a quarter million seabirds of more than a dozen species. Endangered western stock Steller sea lions converge there from rookeries as far away as Southeast Alaska and the Commander Islands in Russia.

This all works because DFG keeps two seasonal biological technicians there during the summer walrus haulout and seabird nesting season. They conduct daily counts, maintain trails, orient visitors and promote safety while ensuring that visitors adhere to the regulations which prevent disturbance of the animals and birds. They also prevent incursions by transiting vessels and aircraft that can cause deadly walrus stampedes. And they deter poachers who might otherwise land there to kill animals for their ivory.

With the permanent closure of the camp all that will change. DFG is revising its approach to lands management, and Wildlife Division director Doug Vincent-Lang told me that in the future the department may decide to issue some permits without on-site presence. He is not concerned, he said, about the threats of disturbance and poaching.

The stated reason for abandoning this world-class visitor and research location, of course, is money. Vincent-Lang says the Legislature and governor cut general fund appropriation to the wildlife division by $430,000 and that shortfall has to be made up somewhere. Visitor fee revenues are less than the cost to put two techs on the island, so the program has to go. The $95,000 annual savings to the division, it turns out, will be just over one-fifth of 1 percent of its current operating budget.

So the wildlife division will save a little money, but costs to Southwest Alaska's tourism industry, to walrus, seabird and sea lion science, to cultural education and science training programs for local, mainly Alaska Native youth, and, most importantly, to the wildlife resource itself, are not part of the equation.

Terry Johnson is marine recreation and tourism specialist with the University of Alaska's Sea Grant Marine Advisory Program. For many years he guided educational and commercial wildlife viewing trips on Round Island and the Togiak National Wildlife Refuge.