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Alaskan Wild Cattle Herd Faces Expulsion

November 20, 2003

CHIRIKOF ISLAND, Alaska (AP) _ They are touted as some of the hardiest cattle in the world, robust members of a wild herd that’s roamed this remote Alaska island for more than 100 years.

The herd has survived long stretches without a human caretaker on Chirikof Island, in the turbulent Gulf of Alaska. Initially introduced in the late 1800s, the animals 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 _ 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.″

But the 28,000-acre island is under the jurisdiction of the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge, which wants to establish a haven there for indigenous seabirds. Refuge officials are losing patience with Jacobson, who has flown out only three live calves and 25 butchered animals in nearly two years of trying.

Officials say the cattle 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. Instead, stubby grasses cover the sweeping hills and valleys of Chirikof, 425 miles southwest of Anchorage.

``Our purpose is wildlife conservation,″ said refuge manager Greg Siekaniec. ``Cattle do not accomplish that purpose. They hinder it.″

On a warm, clear day in mid-September, Siekaniec and refuge biologist Steve Ebbert toured the southwest corner of the island where Jacobson shares a ramshackle house with three ranch hands.

Jacobson told them if he’s evicted, he planned to ``step out with everything.″

``Every fence I’ve put up, every improvement I’ve made. Everything comes down,″ Jacobson said.

Cattle removal has always been a challenge in an area flogged by unpredictable wind and foul weather. There are no natural harbors and submerged reefs make navigation treacherous. So far, three costly attempts to barge some of the animals have failed.

That very isolation and inhospitableness, however, have preserved the notoriously skittish, feral herd _ members of which 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.

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 numerous enterprising ranchers who introduced Angus, Herefords, shorthorns, Scottish Highlands and Guernseys 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.

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 Murkowski wants U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, to help him persuade the federal government to drop 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 to Stevens, whose staff is looking into the matter.

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 extended the deadline for Jacobson, who recently acquired his own barge and has spent the better part of November waiting out a series of winter storms.

``I’m looking for some demonstration that he’s headed for success,″ Siekaniec said.

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