Wildlife at risk if Fish and Game bails out of Round Island sanctuary

Bill Sherwonit
OPINION: Fish and Game is wrong to abandon stewardship of Round Island walrus haven. Pictured: Pacific walruses. Photo courtesy of betsy palfreyman / ADN reader submission

Round Island is once again empty of humans, left to the walruses and other wildlife that make it their seasonal home. The last of the visitors who came to watch and photograph the island’s world-famous gathering of walruses left weeks ago, followed in early August by the state’s two-person monitoring team.

The question now is whether the Department of Fish and Game will station anyone at Round Island next summer or simply abandon its highly successful, decades-long program, as Division of Wildlife Conservation Director Doug Vincent-Lang seems intent on doing.

Vincent-Lang decided earlier this year to zero out Round Island’s funding; $95,000 is a tiny portion of Fish and Game’s total budget, but an amount that former on-site manager Polly Hessing says provides “tremendous bang for the buck.”

Unless he changes his mind, in 2015 no department staff will be assigned to Round Island for the first time in four decades, a troubling thing to the people who know it best.

This craggy island in Bristol Bay is the biological heart of the Walrus Islands State Game Sanctuary, established in 1960 by the Alaska Legislature. Legislators acted to protect North America’s last major terrestrial haulout for Pacific walruses at a time when human activities -- primarily hunting -- had prompted the animals to abandon other traditional sites.

Round Island has gained widespread recognition as one of the world’s outstanding wildlife spectacles. There’s no better place in the world to see large groups of walruses. But the real import of Round Island and the state’s long presence there is the well being of the walruses themselves, something that Vincent-Lang and other high-ranking state wildlife officials don’t seem to understand.

With Gov. Sean Parnell’s tacit approval, Fish and Game appointees are jeopardizing long-standing protections not only at Round Island, but 31 other designated “special areas” managed by the state. In the department’s own words, they “were created to protect particularly rich fish and wildlife habitats and possess outstanding fish and wildlife related recreational opportunities.” (A full list of special areas and their locations is available online.)

To help visitors or wildlife?

Each summer for as long as anyone can remember, thousands of walrus bulls have seasonally occupied Round Island, making it North America’s oldest continuous Pacific walrus haulout. In the mid-1970s, to ensure protection  from human disturbance and illegal kills, a two-person team was seasonally stationed there. Initially it was co-funded by Fish and Game and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the crew included state and federal personnel. In recent years it’s been entirely state-run and funded.

A number of people directly involved in the program over the years emphasize that the team’s presence has been intended to protect walrus and other species from human disturbances and poaching. Longtime Fish and Game manager Larry Van Daele is among them.

Now a Kodiak-based wildlife supervisor, Van Daele managed the sanctuary from 1990 to 1997. Recalling those years, he says, “We felt we had a responsibility to the wildlife resource. ... By having a state presence, we’ve helped people behave more honestly.”

Brian Okonek, who worked at Round Island in 2005-2008 and whose wife, Diane, was the on-site manager from 2003 to 2010, says, “We saw firsthand how important protection of this incredible place is ... walrus still have a quiet place to rest at Round Island because there is ADF&G staff on the island to enforce the sanctuary regulations.”

Besides monitoring and safeguarding the walruses, the on-site team conducts wildlife surveys and oversees its visitor program. Vincent-Lang specifically cites “very low” visitation as a primary reason he’s eliminating all Round Island funding. Despite never visiting the island, he says he’s not convinced staffing is necessary to protect the island’s walrus.

Several people who have worked there strongly disagree. All available evidence clearly demonstrates that walruses at terrestrial haulouts are highly sensitive to human disturbances. And there’s plenty of proof that given the chance, people will try to get close to unguarded walrus haulouts, whether to view the animals, hunt for broken ivory, or kill walruses for their tusks.

Hessing, the on-site manager from 1988 to 1992, emphasizes, “Round Island was established as a sanctuary to protect walruses, not to give people a great visitor experience. If Fish and Game no longer has anyone there, is it properly protecting the walrus as it’s required to do?”

Based on several years of guiding wildlife-viewing trips to Round Island, Terry Johnson observes, “Without staff on the island, the sanctuary becomes less of one because there would be no protection from disturbance or poaching. The specific geographic features of Round Island that make it ideal for walrus resting also make disturbance very easy.”

Johnson and others also note that the Round Island budget is about one-fifth of 1 percent of the DWC’s operating budget. Couldn’t other cuts be found to save what many consider an essential program?

Not just this sanctuary

Those who’ve worked at Round Island are also shocked the state might continue a visitor program without any oversight. They question how disturbances to the walruses would be prevented if staff isn’t present to explain proper behavior. And what about enforcement when regulations are knowingly violated?

Hessing is especially succinct when considering the possibility of a visitor program without a staff presence: “That,” she says, “would be nuts.”

Vincent-Lang admits his staff has expressed similar concerns and says the question of continuing an unmonitored visitor program is “being examined.” He insists he would also reconsider defunding the program if another agency or group would help pay its costs, but that seems unlikely.

Vincent-Lang says that if his critics’ fears are realized, and Round Island’s walruses experience “a lot of harassment over the next year or two,” he might reinstate the program.

Such a strategy makes no sense. Why end a program that over four decades has proven its worth? This is a prime example -- some would say a blatant one -- of Parnell’s appointees making decisions that diminish, or even remove, protections for wildlife and their habitat in Alaska’s special areas.

Because wildlife scientists and managers tend to be careful with their words, it’s telling what Fish and Game’s Van Daele has to say about Round Island: “I agree 100 percent that this is a special place. ... some might say it’s a magical place, even a spiritual place. It’s certainly a big deal; that’s the reason they made it a sanctuary.”

If a special, even magical place and world-renowned sanctuary like Walrus Islands isn’t safe from bureaucratic interference by those who don’t understand its value and power, what special area is?

Anchorage nature writer Bill Sherwonit is the author of more than a dozen books. His newest, to be published this fall, is "Animal Stories: Encounters with Alaska’s Wildlife."

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, e-mail commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com