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Question: Long ago, cattle were turned loose on remote islands off Alaska’s coast. What happened to them?
Curious Alaska: First, here’s the short answer: There are a few remote working ranches in the Aleutians and the Kodiak archipelago, including one that sells beef from its “pseudo-wild herd” exclusively to Alaskan consumers. But there are also islands with feral cattle, including one that’s badly overrun with the animals.
The situation on Chirikof Island is of interest to people who study things like cattle genetics but trouble for Alutiiq cultural heritage sites on the island, native plants and wildlife and the island itself, which has been denuded by hungry cows and is now eroding. Who owns those cattle and what to do about it have proven to be an enduring political fight.
And now, here’s the longer answer.
Sitkinak Island is one of a handful of islands in the Kodiak archipelago and Aleutian chain where cattle roam, the legacy of 19th-century whalers, Russian fox farmers and a few ranchers who hoped to capitalize on a place that’s ecologically rich but punishingly remote.
Today, only a few working ranches still exist. Two islands, within the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge, are home to herds of cattle long abandoned and now considered feral. More on that later.
Sitkinak is home to one of only two remote large-scale cattle ranches operating today.
To learn more about it, we called one of the owners of the Alaska Beef Co., Jason Pyron, a federal sage grouse coordinator and hunting guide from the sagebrush steppe of central Idaho.
Pyron bought the grazing lease on the state-owned land with three childhood friends from Lost Valley, Idaho, back in 2015.
Ever since, he and his partners have been running a small cattle operation that sells what he calls “as close to a wild meat as you can domestically raise.”
Cattle have been on the island since about the 1940s, Pyron said, with various people operating the ranch. He learned about the island’s potential as a ranch while guiding bear hunts on the Alaska peninsula. A visit sold him on the prospect.
“The amazing amount of abundant grasses available on these islands — it’s just incredibly ecologically unique in its ability to produce grass,” he said.
He’s not kidding. On Sitkinak, some areas produce up to 6,000 pounds of forage per acre, according to Pyron. Compare that to Idaho, Pyron said, where the most productive rangeland would be more like 1,500 pounds per acre.
The cows on Sitkinak are never fed antibiotics or vaccines and are “minimally handled and processed.” They are a “pseudo-wild herd” managed to make sure they don’t grow too much in number and don’t overgraze parts of the island. Ranch hands rotate through the island throughout the year, Pyron said.
Pyron told me he sells exclusively to customers in Alaska, with about 25% of the meat — sold in full cow or half-cow shares — going to Kodiak Island, 50% to the greater Anchorage area and the rest to other areas of the state. For Pyron, business is pretty good. The pandemic, and accompanying worries about food security, stoked a boom in demand for the Sitkinak Island beef.
Producing high-quality beef is one thing, Pyron said. The harder part is getting it to market. That’s where many of the ranchers who’ve come to the Aleutian and Kodiak archipelago to make a go of it have stumbled in the past, he said.
“There’s a lot of dreams you can see that have blown away in the wind,” he said.
Bering Pacific Ranches, which has billed itself as one of the largest organic cattle operations in the country, can be found on Umnak Island in the Aleutian chain.
Today, the ranch property is listed for sale for $16.5 million, with a current herd of 8,800 cattle. We reached out to one of the Canadian ranch owners but didn’t hear back. It’s not clear if beef from the ranch is currently being sold and marketed, but in the past has been sold in Canada and the Pacific Northwest.
Some Alaska Native tribal corporations keep smaller herds of cattle on islands, including the Sanak Corp., which has a headquarters in Sand Point.
And then there are the feral cattle herds.
Cattle were likely brought to places such as Chirikof Island about 120 years ago, researchers studying the feral cattle genome found. The herd on Chirikof was “functionally abandoned” in 1949 and has been more or less feral ever since.
The Chirikof herd may be unique because the cows are now on land that’s been designated a national wildlife refuge, said manager Steve Delehanty.
Unmanaged feral cattle on Chirikof and Wosnesenski islands have caused major damage to ecological and archaeological sites on the island, said Patrick Saltonstall, an archaeologist with the Alutiiq Museum in Kodiak.
The cattle tend to reproduce, the herd grows and eventually a die-off reduces the herd again.
Visit during a die-off and be prepared to witness certain Malthusian horrors: Saltonstall remembers cattle carcasses lying around the island. Some of the carcasses had been invaded by foxes, who darted out. (The non-native fox population on Chirikof has since been eradicated, said Steve Delehanty, the refuge manager.)
In 2016, an environmental study found that cows were doing major damage to the native plants and wildlife on the islands. But plans to eradicate the feral cow herd from Chirikof were halted by Congress, Delehanty said.
“I don’t make the laws, I just enforce them,” said Delehanty. “Cattle remain.”