Caribou Emigrate From Adak; Feds Struggle to Stop the Spread

Caribou on Adak in 1985. (Credit: USFWS)
Caribou on Adak in 1985. (Credit: USFWS)

Every summer, a team of federal exterminators set up shop in the southwest corners of the state. Their job is to root out non-native animals that might disturb the Alaska Maritime wildlife refuge.

Besides the usual rats and foxes, the refuge managers decided to target a new pest this season.

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It’s no mystery how caribou wound up on Adak Island. They were imported in the late 1950s so Navy personnel would have something to hunt.

Nowadays, the Navy is gone and the island is a prime spot for big game hunters. But not enough of them, says Steve Ebbert.

He’s a wildlife biologist for the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge. As he stands on the deck of their research vessel, sailing less than a half mile from the rocky shores of Adak, Ebbert says the caribou herd is now seven times its former size. And it’s starting to spread.

Ebbert points to a gently sloping beach just across the way on Kagalaska Island.

It’s not clear when the caribou started to swim across the channel to Kagalaska. But Ebbert thinks he knows why. The island is still covered in thick, white lichen — the same plant that used to grow naturally on Adak.

If the caribou are willing to travel for food, Ebbert says they probably won’t stop at Kagalaska when there even more islands to graze on nearby — all federally protected, refuge land.

After an environmental assessment, the Fish and Wildlife Service decided the best way to prevent that outcome was to organize a hunt on Kagalaska.

The team bagged nine male caribou. But Sen. Lisa Murkowski isn’t impressed with their haul.

The hunt cost $58,000, plus another $13,000 to butcher and salvage the meat. That part was specifically requested by Murkowski and other officials. But going forward, the senator wants to see a different approach.

The Senate Appropriations committee recently (on June 18) approved a new rule that would keep the refuge from using federal money to sponsor more caribou hunts at Kagalaska.

A similar ban would apply to two other islands, where wild cows have escaped from old ranches. Murkowski and her colleagues also suggest a $2 million cut in funding the Fish and Wildlife Service but a million-dollar bump for the refuge system’s budget. The entire package has been sent to the full Senate for consideration.

Elaine Smiloff has lived and hunted on Adak Island for years. She had her own doubts about trying to control the spread of caribou.

But Smiloff also says that this year, it got harder for local hunters to track down caribou in their own backyard. Without a boat — which most residents don’t have — their options seemed to shrink.

Usually, Kagalaska wouldn’t be one of them.

That’s one reason why Smiloff jumped at the chance to help federal hunters move huge slabs of meat off that island. More than a half-ton was distributed to local families.

Smiloff would be glad to help get more. But wildlife managers haven’t decided if they’ll try to conduct another hunt before the Senate takes action on the proposal to shut it down.

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 aboard their research vessel.

Eventually, Steve Ebbert says he wants to find a method for tracking the number of caribou that reach the island. First, he’d have to mark them — with paintballs, or by branding.

But then again:

“You’re capturing the animals, drugging the animals in the case of branding, and marking them permanently — and just releasing them? It doesn’t seem as efficient. If you can shoot them with a dart, you can shoot them with a rifle,” Ebbert says.

The biologist says he wouldn’t call that hunting — more like counting. By elimination.

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