Wildlife

Some Kagalaska caribou likely eluded spring eradication hunt

Caribou remain on Kagalaska Island, despite an eradication project in May, according to Steve Delehanty, refuge manager of the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge. "We probably just missed them. It's a big island," he said Monday.

A group of eight caribou were spotted by helicopter in September, and since one of animals was a newborn calf, he said it probably didn't swim over from Adak.

"We speculate it was born on the island," Delehanty said.

Federal officials don't know yet if they'll launch another extermination effort aimed at removing the invasive animals.

The caribou were seen during a 2-hour aerial survey in September, using a helicopter borrowed from volcano scientists traveling with the chopper on the chartered vessel Maritime Maid, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's account in the online Adak community newsletter, Eagle's Call, in October. The were spotted from the air by Vincent Tutiakoff Jr., according to Fish and Wildlife officials.

The May hunt brought meat to Adak residents when federal hunters killed nine caribou on Kagalaska and donated over half a ton of hindquarters, backstraps and other choice cuts to the town, according to Delehanty.

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.

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The spring hunt aimed to prevent a breeding population from developing on the island, Delehanty 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.

One Adak resident did go, but only to help with the meatpacking operation -- city council member Elaine Smiloff -- according to Adak City Manager Layton 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 from the refuge's Homer headquarters, Delehanty said.

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

The agency expressed concerns of vegetation damage caused by the caribou, the wild version of the domesticated reindeer. 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 the 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 Alaska mainland's Nelchina herd to provide sporthunting 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 many buildings, docks in the harbor, and a large, paved airport, a legacy of its era as a Cold War military outpost.

FWS disagreed with public comment proposing to move 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," the agency said.

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

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