On Afognak, tough hunting yields magnificent bull elk

The sound of the bugling elk reverberated through the chilly morning air and the raw wilderness around Bob Banks as he trudged through thick brush and dense Sitka spruce. He was maneuvering – arduously – through forest at the northern tip of Afognak Island, the second largest in the Kodiak Archipelago and the place he has called home for the past 10 years.

Banks has spent a lot of time hunting bear and black-tailed deer in that time, but he said there is something special about hearing the guttural, primal bellow of a rutting bull elk.

"When you hear it in the field, it resonates in your soul," he said.

Banks heard the elk's bugle on the second of a four-day hunt at the end of September.

The first day he and his hunting partner set up camp and did some scouting. That's when Banks realized his endeavor would not be easy – stepping over downed timber, bushwhacking, and lots of uphill hiking.

"It is very rugged terrain, difficult to make your way through and even make a shot from, much less retrieve and pack one out," Banks said.

Tough getting close

After drawing a permit to hunt an elk of either sex, Banks hoped to harvest a cow, but said he never got an opportunity the first two days. He saw a herd about 50 yards away on the second day, but a large ravine separated him from the animals.

On the third day, about a mile from camp and roughly 80 feet up a mountain, he spotted another small group of cows accompanied by a two bulls competing for the females.

"I was in the trees when I spotted them from about 500 yards away. I stalked them, from tree clump to tree clump, but I just couldn't make it work for the cows," he said.

Every time he got close, the herd seemed to have shifted position, and some natural obstacle prevented a clear shot.

Finally, he moved to where he had a clear line of sight on an animal. It was the bigger bull, and even he was a long way off.

"My range finder said it was 387 yards and he was 200 feet up the mountain," he said.

Banks initially wasn't sure whether he should make an attempt, but after briefly conferring with his buddy, who had faith in Banks' shooting skills, he decided to go for it. Resting his rifle on a tree he attempted to control his breathing and excitement. He set the crosshairs roughly nine inches above the bull elk's back, relaxed and squeezed the trigger, sending a .338 Ruger Compact Magnum round hurtling toward the animal at nearly 3,000 feet per second.

"He shuddered for a second and then started to quarter away. I chambered another round, but didn't need it. He dropped right there," Banks said.

After hiking to the elk, he realized why. The shot had been incredibly clean.

"It exploded his heart," he said. "It was about as good a shot as I can make."

Once he got close to the animal, Banks finally realized how large a bull he had bagged. It exceeded half a ton.

"It was a big elk. I haven't scored it yet, but it was really big. I worked out in preparation for this hunt because I knew it would be tough and I still wasn't ready to carry out the rear quarters. This was no Colorado elk. The quarters weighed 125 pounds each," he said.

Darker, with smaller racks

Huge bulls are fairly typically of the Afognak elk population, according to Paul Jenkins, regional director of the Alaska chapter of the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation.

"They are bigger, darker bulls compared to the Lower 48 elk, but they have slightly smaller racks," he said.

This contrast is because the Alaska animals are Roosevelt elk, the largest of the four subspecies of North American elk, which were historically distributed from northern California to southern British Columbia. Their range and numbers have dwindled over the years, according to Nate Svoboda, Kodiak area wildlife biologist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

"Currently, Roosevelt elk occur only in isolated populations of the Pacific Northwest, Canada's Vancouver Island, and on Afognak and Raspberry Islands in Alaska. Alaska's Roosevelt elk population is one of a few in the world recognized as pure-blood Roosevelt elk," Svoboda said.

How they came to be on the 40-mile long by 25-mile wide island is a story that began nearly a century ago.

"In 1928, the Alaska Game Commission transplanted eight Roosevelt elk calves (three males, five females), obtained from Ho Valley on Washington's Olympic Peninsula, to Kalsin Bay on the northwest side of Kodiak Island," Svoboda said.

Because of the grazing concerns of local ranchers, the elk were removed from the Kalsin Bay Agriculture Experiment Station and released near Litnik Bay on Afognak Island in the spring of 1929. There, the population grew rapidly, relying on older forest stands with increased canopy cover during winter to avoid temperature extremes and minimize energy expenditure. Alternatively, in spring and summer, the elk focused their habitat use along edges between open areas that provide forage and densely vegetated areas that provide cover.

"By 1948, the population exceeded 200 elk, thanks in part to protection by local residents and minimal predation. In the early 1950s the Afognak population was estimated at 300 animals and in 1951, two elk were observed on nearby Raspberry Island," Svoboda said.

The first hunt occurred in 1950 and has been allowed annually since 1955.

"By 1965 the population was estimated at 1,200-1,500 elk in nine separate herds on Afognak Island and one on Raspberry Island. A series of severe winters ending in 1972 caused extensive mortality and reduced the population to about 450. Hunting permits were reduced island-wide to allow the population to recover," Svoboda said.

Again, the population rebounded.

Aerial surveys, radio collars

The herd recovered to a high of 1,400 by the late 1980s and remained relatively stable through the 1990s, with minor fluctuations due to weather.

A harsh 1998–99 winter hurt ungulate populations on the archipelago, and "elk herds on western Afognak and Raspberry islands declined precipitously," Svoboda said. Consequently, populations fell below the management objective of 1,000, with an estimated 972 elk in eight herds prior to this year's hunt.

So many hunters were successful this year that on Nov. 13 Fish and Game closed the registration hunt by emergency order. That's because by the previous day hunters had reported taking 79 animals, close to biologists' objective of harvesting no more than 10 percent of the overall population.

As it has for many years, Fish and Game closely monitored the elk population.

Since 1970, Fish and Game has captured and fit elk in each of the herds with VHF radio collars to help locate herds during aerial surveys, Svoboda said.

"Aerial surveys provide us an estimate of the population size as well as other demographic information, including calf-to-cow ratios and bull-to-cow ratios," he said.

More recently, Fish and Game began capturing and fitting elk with global positioning system (GPS) radio collars, which also allow biologists to gather information on seasonal movements, habitat use, and resource selection.

The Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation has partnered with Fish and Game to help the elk by funding these collar studies.

"Conservation is part of our mission," Jenkins said, "and on that island where they do so much (tree) cutting, it's important to know what the elks' patterns are, where they are going in winter and summer, and how they are using land -- the clear cuts and the heavy timber areas."

In the past, the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation has also worked with various Native organizations and other agencies around the state. They have, according to Jenkins, completed 83 conservation and hunting-heritage projects in Alaska, protecting or enhancing 8,239 acres -- including 4,400 acres in the Perenosa Bay area of Afognak Island in 2006 at a cost of $4 million.

"It was a lot of work, but it was worth it," Jenkins said, "because the elk are worth it."

Joseph Robertia is a freelance writer living in Kasilof with his wife, Colleen, and daughter, Lynx, where they operate Rogues Gallery Kennel.