ANCHORAGE, Alaska — Federal wildlife managers are still trying to determine the fate of hundreds of feral cattle that have long gone without caretakers on a remote, uninhabited Alaska island.
An aerial survey last fall counted 2,024 cattle on Chirikof Island, more than double an earlier estimate of 800. The animals are descendants of cattle first brought there in the late 1880s to provide meat for whaling crews and fox traders.
The Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge has long planned to remove the non-native herds, which are battering the habitat of native wildlife such as seabirds and salmon. Now refuge officials are working on a draft environmental impact statement to explore all options, including leaving at least some of the animals in place.
Refuge manager Steve Delehanty said he hopes the draft for the Chirikof cattle is ready for public comment this year.
"We're trying to make sure we're addressing as many people's concerns as possible and listening to as many people as possible, so that we make the best possible decision in the end," Delehanty said. "But what that decision is yet, I don't know."
The refuge has been busy with public participation over the past year and a half to gauge opinions on how to deal with the cattle, Delehanty said.
Officials have said some ideas submitted already include leaving the cattle or some of the cattle on the island, killing the cattle and salvaging the meat, removing or sterilizing the animals, and introducing predators such as bears and wolves. Some people also urged officials to make the meat or genetic material from the unique herd available to the public, Delehanty said.
The 29,000-acre island could more reasonably accommodate 500 cattle under the current conditions of the land, a range specialist with the USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service said in a report following a July 2014 visit to Chirikof, which is about 400 miles from Anchorage.
Over the years, adventuresome entrepreneurs have added a variety of beef and dairy breeds to Chirikof, resulting in a sturdy hybrid down there today.
The last rancher to try a hand with the herd was Tim Jacobson, who more than a decade ago had an unsuccessful plan to sell the range-fed beef for superior breeding stock. The challenge, however, was always getting the animals off an island with no natural harbors in a region plagued by harsh weather and unpredictable winds.
Although the fate of the cattle remains undetermined, refuge officials have finalized a plan to launch an eradication effort on Chirikof this summer to rid the island of the invasive arctic foxes introduced long ago.
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