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Invasive caribou killed on Kagalaska Island

  • Author: Jim Paulin
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published June 13, 2015

The meat wasn't wasted when federal hunters killed nine caribou on Kagalaska Island last month and donated more than half a ton of hindquarters, backstraps and other choice cuts of wild game to Adak residents, according to Steve Delehanty, refuge manager of the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge. He said it cost $71,000 to remove the invasive all-male caribou population from the nearby island.

Before the hunt, local residents "were a little upset," that the meat would be wasted, said Adak City Clerk Debra Sharrah before the hunt. But that was not the case, as it turned out.

"We really do appreciate that," said Adak City Manager Layton Lockett, who said everybody who wanted some got plenty of the freshly butchered meat. Lockett personally enjoyed his caribou roast.

"It was really good," he said.

Delehanty said 1,208 pounds of caribou meat were backpacked out of Kagalaska and brought to Adak by four U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service employees and one volunteer during the two-day project in late May. The project involved 10 people who traveled close to the island on the refuge's ship, Tiglax, and then landed in inflatable skiffs, he said.

The hunt aimed to prevent a breeding population from establishing itself, but that wouldn't have happened based on the most recent lethal action, as all nine were male caribou, Delehanty said.

However, cows can also swim, he noted. An earlier eradication program about three years ago took out one female, he said.

The caribou were killed to prevent damage to lichens and other plants from the grazing animals that swim a few miles to the neighboring island from Adak Island in the central Aleutians.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski complained about the cost of Kagalaska caribou control last month and called for local participation in the hunt. One Adak resident did go, but only to help with the meat packing operation, and that was city Council member Elaine Smiloff, according to Lockett.

Delehanty said the caribou elimination project cost $71,000, including $58,000 to hire four specially trained shooters from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, working with the agency's Palmer office. The shooters killed the nine caribou in systematic "strategic walks" through the island's 45 square miles, he said. Another $13,000 funded the meat salvage operation, he said.

One Fish and Wildlife employee was among the rifle-armed hunters, an invasive species biologist, Delehanty said from the refuge's Homer headquarters.

"To the best of our knowledge, we got them all. We shot all the ones we saw," Delehanty said, describing the project as a learning experience for his agency. In the future, FWS may provide all the shooters, he said. But this time, FWS relied on the "problem animal experts" of the USDA.

"Current caribou numbers on Kagalaska are likely between zero and 15 animals with ongoing bouts of immigration from Adak occurring at unknown frequency," Fish and Wildlife stated before the recent hunt.

The agency expressed concerns of vegetation damage caused by the caribou. The project could continue over the years if the caribou keep swimming to new ground.

"Caribou control is not expected to impact Kagalaska Island's other non-native terrestrial mammal -- Norway rats," according to FWS's "finding of no significant impact" environmental document, posted on a Web page of the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge.

The caribou on Adak were introduced by the U.S. Navy in the late 1950s from the mainland's Nelchina herd, to provide recreational sport hunting and an emergency food supply before the closure of the Adak Naval Air Station in the 1990s. There are no plans to remove them from Adak.

"Caribou are not native to the central Aleutians and their presence will harm native species and wilderness character on Kagalaska," according to FWS.

Adak, by contrast, is highly developed with numerous buildings, docks in the harbor, and a large, paved airport, a legacy of its history as a Cold War military outpost.

FWS disagreed with public comment proposing moving the Kagalaska caribou to another island.

"We disagree as this would not fulfill federal directives to manage for native species and natural diversity. Nor would it be compliant with agency invasive species policies. Moving the caribou would be a much more complex and expensive operation and require considerably more wilderness disturbance through helicopter operations and possibly motorized vehicle use."

This story first appeared in The Bristol Bay Times/Dutch Harbor Fisherman and is republished here with permission.

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