On the hunt for invasive caribou in the Aleutian Islands

KAGALASKA ISLAND -- Every summer, teams of federal exterminators set up shop in the southwest corner of the state. Their job is to root out non-native animals that might disturb the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge -- a sprawling protected zone that spans 3.4 million acres, from the westernmost tip of the Aleutian Islands north to the Chukchi Sea.

Besides the usual rats and foxes, wildlife managers decided to target a new pest this season. But the first major effort to stamp out invasive caribou on a remote Aleutian Island may well be the last.

Striking out for Kagalaska

On a calm evening in late spring, the M/V Tiglax cruised through the narrow channel that separates Adak from its uninhabited neighbor, Kagalaska Island.

Wildlife biologist Steve Ebbert threw on a camouflage-print fleece jacket and walked down to the deck of the vessel, which is owned by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and used to access islands within the Alaska Maritime refuge.

"If you were a caribou walking up and down the shore like they do every day for days, looking and looking and looking, you might think this could be an attractive place to cross," Ebbert said, pointing across the water to a gently sloping beach on Kagalaska. "And you know what? There are trails that go straight across to the island and we know that this is one of the favorite places (to cross)."

It's no mystery how caribou wound up in the central Aleutians. A handful of animals from the Nelchina herd in the Interior were imported to Adak Island in the late 1950s, so Navy personnel would have something to hunt. With no natural predators to keep them in check, the caribou were at the mercy of human hunters.

But there were suddenly far fewer of those when the Navy closed its base in 1997. Adak transformed from a bustling military outpost of about 5,000 people into a village of no more than 300. Despite visits from big game hunters hoping to bag a trophy, the caribou herd began to grow. At last count, the herd was seven times its former size -- and it had begun to spread to the next island in the Aleutian Chain.

Like some sections of Adak, Kagalaska Island is part of the Alaska Maritime refuge. It's also protected under the Wilderness Act. In 2012, a group of wildlife managers secured permission to shoot any animals they found during a survey of the island. Five were killed.

Ebbert began work on an environmental assessment for the Fish and Wildlife Service, which was published in December. Some results were inconclusive: "It is unclear how often caribou swim over to Kagalaska Island from Adak Island, how long they stay, and how often cows are calving there."

But Ebbert thinks he knows what motivated the animals to strike out for Kagalaska. The island is still covered in thick, white lichen -- a mossy plant that serves as nesting habitat for rock sandpipers. It used to occur naturally on Adak.

"(Caribou) can eat it faster than it can grow," Ebbert said. "That's depleting a native species on an island. It's part of our trust in managing these islands that we manage for natural biodiversity and not introduced animals."

On that basis -- and out of concern that caribou could eventually keep spreading to other islands nearby -- the Fish and Wildlife Service approved plans for a "lethal control project" on Kagalaska in late May. Federal employees rode the M/V Tiglax to the island and took as many caribou time allowed. "It was five guys on foot with rifles walking by themselves, usually out of contact with the ship for hours," Ebbert said. In just over two days, the team bagged nine males.

Murkowski wants a different approach

Sen. Lisa Murkowski was critical of the plan to shoot invasive caribou long before hunters set foot on Kagalaska. In an interview in June, the senator recalled sharing some of her doubts about the project with Dan Ashe, the head of the Fish and Wildlife Service.

"I think it went something along the lines of, 'Is this the stupidest idea that you all have moved forward with or not?' " Murkowski said.

In their environmental assessment, the Fish and Wildlife Service listed other options for controlling the spread of caribou -- everything from installing border fences along the beach, to introducing predator species to cull the herd on Kagalaska Island. But those methods were dismissed out of hand.

Still, there were no guarantees that caribou would be present on Kagalaska Island when the hunters arrived, or that removing the existing animals would prevent further incursions down the road.

The Fish and Wildlife Service did not consult with the regional Aleut Corporation about the hunt until Murkowski urged them to do so. And at first, the agency also planned to leave behind the caribou carcasses and allow them to decompose. Murkowski -- and officials from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game -- asked that any caribou meat be salvaged.

But in the end, Murkowski still wasn't impressed with the results.

"Think of the resources that were expended to go after nine caribou," Murkowski said.

The Alaska Maritime refuge paid $58,000 for the hunt, plus another $13,000 to butcher and salvage the meat.

Going forward, Murkowski wants to force wildlife managers to take a different approach.

"There are other ways to fix problems short of the government -- the federal government -- doing everything," Murkowski said. "Reach out to your partners, reach out to your state, your municipality and your tribes. And that's what we are pushing them to do."

By "we," Murkowski means the Senate Appropriations Committee. On June 18, the committee approved a new rule to keep the refuge from using federal money for sponsoring more caribou hunts at Kagalaska. A similar ban would apply to Wosnesenski and Chirikof islands in Southwest Alaska, where feral cattle have escaped from old ranches. The refuge has been working on an environmental impact statement to determine what to do about those cattle.

The bill advanced by the Senate Appropriations Committee would cut funding for the Fish and Wildlife Service by $2.3 million. But the national wildlife refuge system -- which includes the Alaska Maritime refuge -- would be spared. On that count, the bill calls for a million-dollar budget increase.

Future hunts uncertain

Elaine Smiloff has lived and hunted on Adak Island for more than 10 years. During an interview at Adak's airport in June, Smiloff said she had her own doubts about trying to control the spread of caribou.

"To me, it's a natural process," Smiloff said. "The caribou are going over there. Just let nature do her thing."

But Smiloff also said that this winter it got harder for local hunters to track down caribou in their own backyard. Without boats -- which most residents don't have -- their options seemed to shrink. Usually, Kagalaska wouldn't be one of them.

When Smiloff got an invitation to help clean up after the federal hunt on that island in May, she jumped at the chance. The Aleut Corporation asked that at least one Adak resident be involved in the control project. Smiloff helped butcher caribou and personally hiked back to shore with about 50 pounds of raw meat in tow. In all, 1,200 pounds of caribou were packed onto the M/V Tiglax and distributed to families on Adak.

The local city council recently passed a resolution to formally thank the Fish and Wildlife Service and refuge staff for their contribution.

"I don't like to buy store-bought meat -- although Spam is a staple for me," Smiloff said. "But there's nothing like fresh meat that is organic, natural. It's nice. I had caribou shish-kebabs last night."

Smiloff says she would be glad to lend a hand for future control hunts on Kagalaska. But wildlife managers haven't decided if they'll try to organize another mission before the U.S. Senate takes action on the proposal to shut them down. It's also not clear whether salvaging meat would be a part of the project. Although it generated goodwill in Adak, it's also an added expense.

For now, the Alaska Maritime refuge is more focused on finding out if the first big control effort was a success. They may have a chance to investigate in August, when refuge staff are scheduled to sail past Kagalaska again aboard the M/V Tiglax.

Eventually, wildlife biologist Steve Ebbert says he wants to find a method for tracking the number of caribou that do reach the island. First, he'd have to mark them -- with paintballs, or by branding. But to Ebbert, some of those methods seem oddly invasive.

"You're capturing the animals, drugging the animals in the case of branding, and marking them permanently," Ebbert said. "And just releasing them? It doesn't seem as efficient as eliminating them."

"If you can shoot them with a dart, you can shoot them with a rifle."

This story, the first of several from a trip earlier this season with scientists doing work in the Aleutians, was a collaboration between Alaska Dispatch News and KUCB radio in Unalaska and Alaska Public Media.