They are touted as some of the hardiest cattle in the world, robust members of a wild herd that has roamed this remote island for more than 100 years.
The herd on Chirikof Island is a mix of Angus, Siberian and other breeds that survived long stretches without a human caretaker. Initially introduced in the late 1800s, the cattle supplied meat for early pioneers, including whaling crews and an Arctic blue fox industry established by Russian fur traders.
Tim Jacobson, the latest in a long line of adventurers to lay claim to the animals, sees great commercial potential in the 800-head herd, either as range-fed beef or superior breeding stock. But first, he has to figure out a way to get them off the storm-lashed island at a reasonable cost -- and time is running out.
The federal government wants its land back.
“There’s not anything like them,” Jacobson, 39, said of the herd in a recent interview on the treeless island. “These cattle have the texture and taste of elk more than beef. I think they would make an excellent gene pool.”
But the 28,000-acre island is under the jurisdiction of the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge, which wants to return the sandy soil to its lush original habitat and establish a haven for indigenous seabirds drastically reduced by overgrazing and foxes.
That means removing the cattle from Chirikof, 425 miles southwest of Anchorage in the turbulent Gulf of Alaska. Officials say the animals trample and consume what should be bird nesting grounds, such as hip-deep grasses found on undisturbed islands in the Aleutians chain to the west.
Refuge managers also plan to trap and kill several dozen foxes remaining from the long-dead fur-trading industry.
“We have a responsibility to restore the island. Our purpose is wildlife conservation,” said refuge manager Greg Siekaniec. “Cattle do not accomplish that purpose; they hinder it.”
Jacobson has managed to fly out only three live calves and 25 butchered animals in nearly two years of trying. Historically, cattle removal has been a challenge in an area flogged by unpredictable winds and foul weather. Travelers can reach Chirikof only by boat or chartered plane.
That very isolation and inhospitableness, however, has preserved the notoriously skittish, feral herd, whose members sport a variety of hides, both smooth and curly, brown and black. They survive on an abundant diet of beach rye and other grasses, supplemented by kelp in winter.
Jacobson said he’s seen no indication of disease or abnormalities, although many of the animals have overgrown hooves from the island’s soft ground. He wonders about their heritage and has sent blood samples for genetic testing to a scientist at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks.
“It’ll be interesting to see what a population isolated on an island looks like,” said Matt Cronin, an associate professor of the university’s School of Natural Resources and Agricultural Science. “These cattle raise lots of interesting questions about natural selection. Hopefully, we’ll get clues to what breeds they most represent. Or their actual characteristics may be unique.”
Some ranchers on Kodiak Island, 80 miles to the north, believe the stocky cattle stem from Siberian stock introduced by Russians two centuries ago. Some historians say the first cattle were brought to Chirikof in the late 1880s by an American whaling company.
Whatever its origin, the herd has been a magnet for enterprising ranchers who introduced Angus, Herefords, shorthorns, Scottish Highlands and Guernseys to the mix over the years.
As a result, a unique, sturdy hybrid well-suited to a northern environment has evolved, according to Kodiak residents who lobbied officials to keep the herd on Chirikof as a segregated breeding stock. Among the advocates is Norman Sutliff, 87, who recently bought one of the Chirikof calves for $200.
“Those cattle are doing just fine. They’ve been there a long, long time, and they’re not hurting anything,” he said.
“You couldn’t find a bunch of cattle anywhere in the world like them. Why not just leave them alone? There’s already prime bird sanctuaries all along the Aleutians.”
Refuge biologist Steve Ebbert said the refuge had no choice but to carry out its mission, to protect native species.
“We’re not in the cattle business,” he said. “Cattle are not compatible with what we’d like to see there.”
The federal government expected the state to take possession of the island when a longtime Bureau of Land Management grazing lease with a former herd owner expired Dec. 31, 2000. Chirikof was selected for state acquisition under the Alaska Statehood Act. But the state posted no objections when the BLM rejected the acquisition in 1997.
Now there are only two ways the state can acquire the island: through a land trade with the federal government or an act of Congress.
The state is not interested in a trade because of the island’s seclusion. But Gov. Frank H. Murkowski hopes to dissuade the federal government from its “ill-conceived plan.”
“The herd is very much a part of the natural ecosystem and the interaction between various species and their habitat,” Murkowski wrote in an Aug. 25 letter. “Maintaining the herd’s integrity actually promotes refuge purposes by preserving a species which has long since become indigenous to that area.”
If the state is such a supporter of the herd, it can have it, Siekaniec said.
“Maybe we can work together to move the cattle to a state-owned island,” he said. “That’s another option.”
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which oversees the 3.5-million-acre refuge, issued a permit to Jacobson in 2002 for removal of the cattle by Oct. 1. Siekaniec has since given Jacobson another month to come up with a viable plan for removing the cattle.
“I’m looking for some demonstration that he’s headed for success,” Siekaniec said.
The endeavor has been thwarted by the region’s harsh weather and, Jacobson says, uncooperative barge operators hired to remove the cattle. There are no natural harbors on the island, and submerged reefs make navigation treacherous. So far, three costly attempts to barge some of the animals have failed.
A year ago, 97 cattle were actually boarded onto a barge but the vessel ran aground in the sand near shore. The animals had to be unloaded, and the barge was stuck for more than a week.
“I could have removed three loads by this time,” Jacobson said. He said he may buy his own barge rather than spend thousands for each hired attempt.
On a warm, clear day in mid-September, Siekaniec and Ebbert toured the southwest corner of the island where Jacobson lives in a ramshackle house with three ranch hands. Within shouting distance are fences and corrals Jacobson erected with lumber that has washed ashore over the years. Across the island on the northeast end is the deteriorating shell of a slaughterhouse built by an early rancher.
Jacobson stood on the beach with Siekaniec and Ebbert, waiting for his hands and a couple of dogs to round up dozens of the tamer cattle. Using a four-wheeler and a horse, the cowboys ran the animals along rolling hills and valleys to a corral where Jacobson built a chute leading to the shore.
If his venture fails, there are other options, officials said. Besides transferring the cattle to state property, the refuge could let another private party attempt removal. But they want to avoid the solution used on three other islands in the 1980s -- slaughtering the animals on site.
“We would exhaust every avenue before going into an eradication-type effort,” Siekaniec said.