By Hannah Heimbuch
The Alaska Gulf may not be known for its large tracts of ranch land, but it is nonetheless home to a handful of island-bound cattle herds — non-native populations introduced in the 19th century.
Two of those island territories may soon be free of their bovine occupants, however, as the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge begins the process of returning the refuge land back to its natural habitat.
That was the subject of a public meeting last week at Homer’s Islands and Ocean Visitor Center. The issue has drawn comment from conservationists, hunters, concerned citizens and livestock producers, to name a few.
According to biologists, Chirikof and Wosnesenski islands are suffering increased erosion from the growing feral herds. In accordance with their federal mandate to protect and preserve designated lands, refuge management is looking for a remedy.
With the herds’ fate at this point undecided, ranchers have shown a strong interest in studying and preserving the breed.
“They’re genetically unique,” said Homer cattle rancher Jan Flora, who has been working to preserve the Chirikof herd in particular for 20 years. “And they’re naturally quarantined from cow diseases.”
The modern world is no stranger to cattle plagues, Flora said, like the foot-and-mouth disease that decimated livestock populations in Europe in the early 2000s. That outbreak led to the destruction of more than 10 million animals.
Access to a herd that is naturally removed from such exposures offers some food security options, should disaster strike a mainland population, she said.
Refuge manager Steve Delehanty is in the beginning stages of public input on this project, and during the open forum last week it became clear that there are plenty of legal and logistical issues creating road blocks.
The islands are remote and uninhabited, with no harbor or easy way to even get a landing craft in for transportation needs. Any recovery operation would be expensive and tricky, as evidenced by a largely failed attempt a decade ago. The now-wild animals will likely prove difficult to manage, and cash recovery from processing them in some way has its own set of hurdles.
Proper TB testing for the isolated herd — required by State of Alaska veterinarians for all mainland herds — may be difficult should the cattle be removed and used or kept for any purpose. Then there is the question of who the animals actually belong to, which at this point is unclear.
“We’re going to try and sort that all out,” Delehanty said. “There are people who could potentially have a claim on them. But you also can’t just leave your property somewhere forever and still own them.”
There are a lot of challenges, no matter what scenario you look at. Which is why some of the suggestions Delehanty has heard of late involve shooting the animals on the island, then letting nature take its course.
But Flora believes it is well worth it to find a way to preserve them; one that still allows the refuge to meet its mandate.
One of the things that helps the world’s livestock producers protect their business and our food source, she said, is biodiversity.
“We’re losing the diversity of our plant and animal species at a horrendous rate,” Flora said. “And this has been going on since 1900 — really, really fast. The more genetic diversity you have, the better your chances are of surviving catastrophic things.”
This breed is particularly interesting because of its origins. A 2006 U.S. Department of Agriculture genetic study revealed that the Chirikof herd may have strong Siberian Yakut genetics.
“That’s a very endangered breed,” Flora said. “It’s the northernmost breed in the world.”
There are efforts in other northern countries to preserve that line, she said, and local ranchers like herself are very interested in seeing that aspect of the Chirikof herd further examined and protected.
Some livestock producers are interested in taking and freezing semen and other genetic samples from the hardy stock, or breeding animals retrieved from the island.
Residents discussed a number of ideas and potential problems Monday night. One participant wondered if the cattle could be gathered and transported as part of a military logistics exercise, an eco-tourism effort or a hunting/guiding opportunity.
Another suggested the refuge look to the wild Chincoteague ponies of Assateage Island as a model. The longstanding wild herd resides on an island on the Maryland-Virginia state line. An annual pony auction helps control the herd size.
Still another possibility suggested was the transportation of portable processing equipment from a nearby island — where there is an active livestock operation — in order to process the meat. That was discussed both as a one-time salvage operation, or an annual one that focused on a controlled herd size.
“It all comes down to the logistical challenges really,” Delehanty said.
Those logistics are essentially access, funding and a final destination for the removed cattle — if removal is the route taken.
“It’s a relatively easy, and certainly honorable and excellent intention, to try and put this meat resource in the hands of people who need it, and could really use it,” Delehanty said. “But how are you going to do it?”
While the expense of removing or managing the cattle seems to be one of the biggest hoops to jump through, Delehanty said they are not looking at holding past owners accountable for that expense.
“We’re looking into the future, not the past,” he said.
A final suggestion at the open house noted the possibility of a land exchange between the state and the refuge, which could potentially open up options for the cattle that don’t fit into the wildlife refuge mission.
There are seven Alaska islands with free-range cattle that are owned — at least in part — by the wildlife refuge. The two in question are entirely refuge-owned. Chirikof Island is 80 miles southwest of Kodiak, while Wosnesenski lies between Sand Point and King Cove on the south side of the Alaska Peninsula.
While many options exist for the future of these island herds, their fate is far from decided. The maritime refuge invites public comment during this phase, and will ask for public comment again during the draft assessment phase later in the year.
A forum similar to the Homer event will take place Jan. 7 in Kodiak at the Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge Visitor Center from 4 to 6 p.m.
Ideas or comments may also be submitted in writing or by phone. The deadline to submit is Jan. 31, 2014. Submission will be accepted by any of the following methods:
E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org; Letter: Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge; Attention: Cattle, 95 Sterling Hwy, Suite 1, Homer, AK 99603; Phone: 907-235-6546; Fax: 907-235-7783
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