Monday, December 18, 2023

Republic of Cows

On Alaska’s remote Chirikof Island, cattle are left to thrive or die. Video by Shanna Baker

The Republic of Cows

When habitat loss is one of the biggest issues facing wild animals, why has Alaska given an uninhabited, remote island to feral cattle?

Text by Jude Isabella
Photos and video by Shanna Baker

August 15, 2023 | 5,600 words, about 28 minutes

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The floatplane bobs at the dock, its wing tips leaking fuel. I try not to take that as a sign that my trip to Chirikof Island is ill fated. Bad weather, rough seas, geographical isolation—visiting Chirikof is forever an iffy adventure.

A remote island in the Gulf of Alaska, Chirikof is about the size of two Manhattans. It lies roughly 130 kilometers southwest of Kodiak Island, where I am waiting in the largest town, technically a city, named Kodiak. The city is a hub for fishing and hunting, and for tourists who’ve come to see one of the world’s largest land carnivores, the omnivorous brown bears that roam the archipelago. Chirikof has no bears or people, though; it has cattle.

At last count, over 2,000 cows and bulls roam Chirikof, one of many islands within a US wildlife refuge. Depending on whom you ask, the cattle are everything from unwelcome invasive megafauna to rightful heirs of a place this domesticated species has inhabited for 200 years, perhaps more. Whether they stay or go probably comes down to human emotions, not evidence.

Russians brought cattle to Chirikof and other islands in the Kodiak Archipelago to establish an agricultural colony, leaving cows and bulls behind when they sold Alaska to the United States in 1867. But the progenitor of cattle ranching in the archipelago is Jack McCord, an Iowa farm boy and consummate salesman who struck gold in Alaska and landed on Kodiak in the 1920s. He heard about feral cattle grazing Chirikof and other islands, and sensed an opportunity. But once he’d bought the Chirikof herd from a company that held rights to it, he got wind that the federal government was going to declare the cattle wild and assume control of them. McCord went into overdrive.

In 1927, he successfully lobbied the US Congress—with help from politicians in the American West—to create legislation that enshrined the right of privately owned livestock to graze public lands. What McCord set in motion reverberates in US cattle country today, where conflicts over land use have led to armed standoffs and death.

McCord introduced new bulls to balance the herd and inject fresh genes into the pool, but he soon lost control of his cattle. By early 1939, he still had 1,500 feral cattle—too many for him to handle and far too many bulls. Stormy, unpredictable weather deterred most of the hunters McCord turned to for help thinning the herd, though he eventually wrangled five men foolhardy enough to bet against the weather gods. They lost. The expedition failed, precipitated one of McCord’s divorces, and almost killed him. In 1950, he gave up. But his story played out on Chirikof over and over for the next half-century, with various actors making similarly irrational decisions, caught up in the delusion that the frontier would make them rich.

By 1980, the government had created the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge (Alaska Maritime for short), a federally protected area roughly the size of New Jersey, and charged the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) with managing it. This meant preserving the natural habitat and dealing with the introduced and invasive species. Foxes? Practically annihilated. Bunnies? Gone. But when it came to cattle?

Alaskans became emotional. “Let’s leave one island in Alaska for the cattle,” Governor Frank Murkowski said in 2003. Thirteen years later, at the behest of his daughter, Alaska’s senior senator, Lisa Murkowski, the US Congress directed the USFWS to leave the cattle alone.

So I’d been wondering: what are those cattle up to on Chirikof?

On the surface, Alaska as a whole appears an odd choice for cattle: mountainous, snowy, far from lucrative markets. But we’re here in June, summer solstice 2022, at “peak green,” when the archipelago oozes a lushness I associate with coastal British Columbia and the Pacific Northwest. The islands rest closer to the gentle climate of those coasts than to the northern outposts they skirt. So, in the aspirational culture that Alaska has always embraced, why not cattle?

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Spring weather brings “peak green” to the Kodiak Archipelago in Alaska, which appears like perfect pastoral habitat for cattle.

“Why not cattle” is perhaps the mantra of every rancher everywhere, to the detriment of native plants and animals. But Chirikof, in some ways, was more rational rangeland than where many of McCord’s ranching comrades grazed their herds—on Kodiak Island, where cattle provided the gift of brisket to the Kodiak brown bear. Ranchers battled the bears for decades in a one-sided war. From 1953 to 1963, they killed about 200 bears, often from the air with rifles fixed to the top of a plane, sometimes shooting bears far from ranches in areas where cattle roamed unfenced.

Bears and cattle cannot coexist. It was either protect bears or lose them, and on Kodiak, bear advocates pushed hard. Cattle are, in part, the reason the Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge exists. Big, charismatic bears outshone the cows and bulls; bear protection prevailed. Likewise, one of the reasons the Alaska Maritime exists—sweeping from the Inside Passage to the Aleutian chain and on up to the islands in the Chukchi Sea—is to protect seabirds and other migratory birds. A cattle-free Chirikof, with its generally flat topography and lack of predators, would offer more quality habitat for burrow-nesting tufted puffins, storm petrels, and other seabirds. And yet, on Chirikof, and a few other islands, cows apparently outshine birds.

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Map data by ArcGIS

The remoteness, physically good for birds, works against them, too: most people can picture a Ferdinand the Bull frolicking through the cotton grass, but not birds building nests. Chirikof is so far from other islands in the archipelago that it’s usually included as an inset on paper maps. A sample sentence for those learning the Alutiiq language states the obvious: Ukamuk (Chirikof) yaqsigtuq (is far from here). At least one Chirikof rancher recommended the island as a penal colony for juvenile delinquents. To get to Chirikof from Kodiak, you need a ship or a floatplane carrying extra fuel for the four-hour round trip. It’s a wonder anyone thought grazing cattle on pasture at the outer edge of a floatplane’s fuel supply was a good idea.


Patrick Saltonstall, a cheerful, fit 57-year-old with a head of tousled gray curls, is an archaeologist with the Alutiiq Museum in Kodiak. He’s accompanying photographer Shanna Baker and me to Chirikof—but he’s left us on the dock while he checks in at the veterinarian’s where he has taken his sick dog, a lab named Brewster.

The owners of the floatplane, Jo Murphy and her husband, pilot Rolan Ruoss, are debating next steps, using buckets to catch the fuel seeping from both wing tips. Weather is the variable I had feared; in the North it’s a capricious god, swinging from affable to irascible for reasons unpredictable and unknowable. But the weather is perfect this morning. Now, I’m fearing O-rings.

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Rolan Ruoss, pilot and owner of Sea Hawk Air in Alaska, fills his floatplane’s wing with fuel before realizing a mechanical issue will cause it all to drain out again.

Our 8:00 a.m. departure ticks by. Baker and I grab empty red plastic jerrycans from a pickup truck and haul them to the dock. The crew empties the fuel from the buckets into the red jugs. This will take a while.

A fuel leak, plus a sick dog: are these omens? But such things are emotional and irrational. I channel my inner engineer: failing O-rings are a common problem, and we’re not in the air, so it’s all good.

Saltonstall returns, minus his usual smile: Brewster has died.


He sighs, shakes his head, and mumbles his bewilderment and sadness. Brewster’s death apparently mystified the vet, too. Baker and I murmur our condolences. We wait in silence awhile, gazing at distant snowy peaks and the occasional seal peeking its head above water. Eventually, we distract Saltonstall by getting him talking about Chirikof.

Cattle alone on an island can ruin it, he says. They’re “pretty much hell on archaeological sites,” grazing vegetation down to nubs, digging into the dirt with their hooves, and, as creatures of habit, stomping along familiar routes, fissuring shorelines so that the earth falls away into the sea. Saltonstall falls silent. Brewster is foremost on his mind. He eventually wanders over to see what’s up with the plane.

I lie on a picnic table in the sun, double-check my pack, think about birds. There is no baseline data for Chirikof prior to the introduction of cattle and foxes. But based on the reality of other islands in the refuge, it has a mix of good bird habitats. Catherine West, an archaeologist at Boston University in Massachusetts, studies Chirikof’s animal life from before the introduction of cows and foxes; she has been telling me that the island was likely once habitat for far more birds than we see today: murres, auklets, puffins, kittiwakes and other gulls, along with ducks and geese.

Bird, Plant, Beak, Grass

A sandpiper, a shorebird, flits among a verdant carpet.

I flip through my notes to what I scrawled while walking a Kodiak Island trail through Sitka spruce with retired wildlife biologist Larry Van Daele. Van Daele worked for the State of Alaska for 34 years, and once retired, sat for five years on the Alaska Board of Game, which gave him plenty of time to sit through raucous town hall meetings pitting Kodiak locals against USFWS officials. Culling ungulates—reindeer and cattle—from islands in the refuge has never gone down well with locals. But change is possible. Van Daele also witnessed the massive cultural shift regarding the bear—from “If it’s brown, it’s down” to it being an economic icon of the island. Now, ursine primacy is on display on the cover of the official visitor guide for the archipelago: a photo of a mother bear, her feet planted in a muddy riverbank, water droplets clinging to her fur, fish blood smearing her nose.

But Chirikof, remember, is different. No bears. Van Daele visited several times for assessments before the refuge eradicated foxes. His first trip, in 1999, followed a long, cold winter. His aerial census counted 600 to 800 live cattle and 200 to 250 dead, their hair and hide in place and less than 30 percent of them scavenged. “The foxes were really looking fat,” he told me, adding that some foxes were living inside the carcasses. The cattle had likely died of starvation. Without predators, they rise and fall with good winters and bad.

The shape of the island summarizes the controversy, Van Daele likes to say—a T-bone steak to ranchers and a teardrop to bird biologists and Indigenous people who once claimed the island. In 2013, when refuge officials began soliciting public input over what to do with feral animals in the Alaska Maritime, locals reacted negatively during the three-year process. They resentfully recalled animal culls elsewhere and argued to preserve the genetic heritage of the Chirikof cattle. Van Daele, who has been described as “pro-cow,” seems to me, more than anything, resistant to top-down edicts. As a wildlife biologist, he sees the cattle as probably invasive and acknowledges that living free as a cow is costly. An unmanaged herd has too many bulls. Trappers on Chirikof have witnessed up to a dozen bulls at a time pursuing and mounting cows, causing injury, exhaustion, and death, especially to heifers. It’s not unreasonable to imagine a 1,000-kilogram bull crushing a heifer weighing less than half that.

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Wildlife biologist Larry Van Daele worked for the State of Alaska for over 30 years and assessed the cattle population on Chirikof Island for the first time in 1999.

But, as an Alaskan and a former member of the state’s Board of Game, Van Daele chafes at the federal government’s control. Senator Murkowski, after all, was following the lead of her constituents, at least the most vocal of them, when she pushed to leave the cattle free to roam. Once Congress acted, Van Daele told me, “why not find the money, spend the money, and manage the herd in a way that allows them to continue to be a unique variety, whatever it is?” “Whatever it is” turns out to be not much at all.


Finally, Ruoss beckons us to the plane, a de Havilland Canada Beaver, a heroically hard-working animal, well adapted for wandering the bush of a remote coast. He has solved the leaking problem by carrying extra fuel onboard in jerrycans, leaving the wing tips empty. At 12:36 p.m., we take off for Chirikof.

Imagine Fred Rogers as a bush pilot in Alaska. That’s Ruoss: reassuring, unflappable, and keen to share his archipelago neighborhood. By the time we’re angling up off the water, my angst—over portents of dead dog and dripping fuel—has evaporated.

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Ruoss has flown the Kodiak Archipelago since the 1970s.

A transplant from Seattle, Washington, Ruoss was a herring spotter as a young pilot in 1979. Today, he mostly transports hunters, bear-viewers, and scientists conducting fieldwork. He takes goat hunters to remote clifftops, for example, sussing out the terrain and counting to around seven as he flies over a lake at 100 miles per hour (160 kilometers per hour) to determine if the watery landing strip is long enough for the Beaver.

From above, our world is equal parts land and water. We fly over carpets of lupine and pushki (cow parsnip), and, on Sitkinak Island, only 15 kilometers south of Kodiak Island, a cattle herd managed by a private company with a grazing lease. Ruoss and Saltonstall point out landmarks: Refuge Rock, where Alutiiq people once waited out raids by neighboring tribes but couldn’t repel an attack from Russian cannons; a 4,500-year-old archaeology site with long slate bayonets; kilns where Russians baked bricks for export to California; an estuary where a tsunami destroyed a cannery; the village of Russian Harbor, abandoned in the 1930s. “People were [living] in every bay” in the archipelago, Ruoss says. He pulls a book about local plant life from under his seat and flips through it before handing it over the seat to me.

Today, the only people we see are in boats, fishing for Dungeness crab and salmon. We fly over Tugidak Island, where Ruoss and Murphy have a cabin. The next landmass will be Chirikof. We have another 25 minutes to go, with only whitecaps below.

For thousands of years, the Alutiiq routinely navigated this rough sea around their home on Chirikof, where they wove beach rye and collected amber and hunted sea lions, paddling qayat—kayaks. Fog was a hazard; it descends rapidly here, like a ghostly footstep. When Alutiiq paddlers set off from Chirikof, they would tie a bull kelp rope to shore as a guide back to safety if mist suddenly blocked their vision.

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Chirikof Island, Alaska, is shrouded in mist as the floatplane approaches.

As we angle toward Chirikof, sure enough, a mist begins to form. But like the leaking fuel or Brewster’s death, it foreshadows nothing. Below us, as the haze dissipates, the island gleams green, a swath of velveteen shaped, to my mind, like nothing more symbolic than the webbed foot of a goose. A bunch of spooked cows gallop before us as we descend over the northeast side. Ruoss lands on a lake plenty long for a taxiing Beaver.

We toss out our gear and he’s off. We’re the only humans on what appears to be a storybook island—until you kick up fecal dust from a dry cow pie, and then more, and more, and you find yourself stumbling over bovid femurs, ribs, and skulls. Cattle prefer grazing a flat landscape, so stick to the coastline and to the even terrain inland. We tromp northward, flushing sandpipers from the verdant carpet. A peppery bouquet floats on the still air. A cabbagey scent of yarrow dominates whiffs of sedges and grasses, wild geraniums and flag irises, buttercups and chocolate lilies.

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Cattle skulls, femurs, and tibias litter the island.

Since the end of the last ice age, Chirikof has been mostly tundra-like: no trees, sparse low brush, tall grasses, and boggy. Until the cattle arrived, the island never had large terrestrial mammals, the kind of grazers and browsers that mold a landscape—mammoths, mastodons, deer, caribou. But bovids have fashioned a pastoral landscape that a hiker would recognize in crossing northern England, a place that cows and sheep have kept clear for centuries. The going is easy, but Baker and I struggle to keep pace with the galloping Saltonstall, and we can’t help but stop to gape at bull and cow skeletons splayed across the grasses. We skirt a ground nest with three speckled eggs, barely hidden by the low scrub. We cut across a beach muddled with plastics—ropes, bottles, floats—and reach a giant puddle with indefinable edges, its water meandering toward the sea. “We call it the river Styx,” Saltonstall says. “The one you cross into hell.”

Chirikof Island is uninhabited, remote, and would offer a good mix of bird habitat if it weren’t for the bovine influence.

Compared with the Emerald City behind us, the underworld across the Styx is a Kansas dust bowl, a sandy mess that looks as if it could swallow us. Saltonstall tells us about a previous trip when he and his colleagues pulled a cow out of quicksand. Twice. “It charged us—and we’d saved its life!”

Hoof prints scatter from the river. At one time, the river Styx probably supported a small pink salmon run. A team of biologists reported in 2016 that several Chirikof streams host pink and coho, with cameo appearances of rainbow trout and steelhead. This stream is likely fish-free, the erosion too corrosive, a habitat routinely trampled.

Two raptors—jaegers—cavort above us. A smaller bird’s entrails unspool at our feet. On a sandy bluff, Saltonstall pauses to look for artifacts while Baker and I climb down to a beach where hungry cattle probably eat seaweed in winter. We follow a ground squirrel’s tracks up the bluff to its burrow, and at the top meet Saltonstall, who holds out his hands: stone tools. Artifacts sprinkle the surface as if someone has shaken out a tablecloth laden with forks, knives, spoons, and plates—an archaeological site with context ajumble. A lone bovid’s track crosses the sand, winding through shoulder blades, ribs, and the femoral belongings of relatives.

After four hours of hiking, we turn toward the lake where we left our gear. So far on this hike, dead cattle outnumber live ones, dozens to zero. But wait! What’s that? A bull appears on a rise, across a welcome mat of cotton grass. Curious, he jogs down. Baker and Saltonstall peer through viewfinders and click off images. The bull stops several meters away; we stare at each other. He wins. We turn and walk away. When I look back, he’s still paused, watching us, or—I glance around—watching a distant herd running at us.

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A lone bull trots through cotton grass, curious about the three humans in its habitat.

Again, my calm comrades-in-arms lift their cameras. I lift my iPhone, which shakes because I’m scared. Should I have my hands on the pepper spray I borrowed from Ruoss and Murphy? Closer, closer, closer they thunder, until I can’t tell the difference between my pounding heart and their pounding feet. Then, in sync, the herd turns 90 degrees and gallops out of the frame. The bull lollops away to join them. Their cattle plans take them elsewhere.

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Herds of cattle roam the island without predators. Their only fear is harsh winters and sometimes each other.

Saltonstall has surveyed archaeology sites three times on Chirikof. The first time, in 2005, he carried a gun to hunt the cattle, but his colleagues were also apprehensive about the feral beasts. At least one person I talked to suggested we bring a gun. But Saltonstall says he learned that cattle are cowards: stand your ground, clap, and cows and bulls will run away. But to me, big domesticated herbivores are terrifying. Horses kick and bite, cattle can crush you. The rules of bears—happier without humans around—are easier to parse. I’ve never come close to pepper spraying a bear, but I’m hot on the trigger when it comes to cattle.


The Old Ranch on Chirikof Island is falling into the sea as the cliff erodes.

The next morning, we set out for the Old Ranch, one of the two homesteads built decades ago on the island and about a three-hour amble one way. Ruoss won’t be picking us up till 3:00 p.m., so we have plenty of time. The cattle path we’re following crosses a field bejeweled with floral ambers, opals, rubies, sapphires, amethysts, and shades of jade. It’s alive with least sandpipers, a shorebird that breeds in northern North America, with the males arriving early, establishing their territories, and building nests for their mates. The least sandpiper population, in general, is in good shape—they certainly flourish here. High-pitched, sped-up laughs split the air. They slice the wind and rush across the velvet expanse. Their flapping wings look impossibly short for supporting flights from their southern wintering grounds, sometimes as far away as Mexico, over 3,000 kilometers distant. They flutter into a tangle of green and vanish.

From a small rise, we spot cattle paths meandering into the distance, forking again and again. Saltonstall announces the presence of the only other mammal on the island. “A battery killer,” he says, raising his camera at an Arctic ground squirrel, and he’s right. They are adorable. They stand on two legs and hold their food in their hands. To us humans, that makes them cute. Pretty soon, we’re all running down the batteries on our cameras and smartphones.

Sky, Fawn

Researchers think Alutiiq people likely introduced Arctic ground squirrels to Chirikof Island at least 2,000 years ago.

Qanganaq is Alutiiq for ground squirrel. An Alutiiq tailor needed around 100 ground squirrels for one parka, more precious than a sea otter cloak. Some evidence suggests the Alutiiq introduced ground squirrels to Chirikof at least 2,000 years ago, apparently a more rational investment than cattle. Squirrels were easily transported, and the market for skins was local. Still, they were fancy dress, Dehrich Chya, the Alutiiq Museum’s Alutiiq language and living culture manager, told me. Creating a parka—from hunting to sewing to wearing—was an homage to the animals that offered their lives to the Alutiiq. Archaeologist Catherine West and her crew have collected over 20,000 squirrel bones from Chirikof middens, a few marked by tool use and many burned.

Chirikof has been occupied and abandoned periodically—the Alutiiq quit the island, perhaps triggered by a volcanic eruption 4,000 years ago, then came people more related to the Aleuts from the west, then the Alutiiq again. Then, Russian colonizers arrived. The Russians lasted not much longer than the American cattle ranchers who would succeed them. That last, doomed culture crumbled in less than 100 years, pegged to an animal hard to transport, with a market far, far away.

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Dehrich Chya, the Alutiiq language and living culture manager at the Alutiiq Museum in Kodiak, shows off a ground squirrel cloak. It takes around 100 squirrels to create one garment.

Whether ground squirrels, some populations definitely introduced, should be in the Alaska Maritime is rarely discussed. One reason, probably, is that they are small and cute and easy to anthropomorphize. There is a great body of literature on why we anthropomorphize. Evolutionarily, cognitive archaeologists would argue that once we could anthropomorphize—by at least 40,000 years ago—we became better hunters and eventually herders. We better understood our prey and the animals we domesticated. Whatever the reason, researchers tend to agree that to anthropomorphize is a universal human behavior with profound implications for how we treat animals. We attribute humanness based on animals’ appearance, familiarity, and non-physical traits, such as agreeability and sociality—all factors that will vary somewhat across cultures—and we favor those we humanize.

Ungulates, in general, come across favorably. Add a layer of domestication, and cattle become even more familiar. Cows, especially dairy cows named Daisy, can be sweet and agreeable. Steve Ebbert, a retired USFWS wildlife biologist living on the Alaska mainland outside Homer, eradicated foxes, as well as rabbits and marmots, from islands in the refuge. Few objected to eliminating foxes—or even the rabbits and marmots, he told me. Cattle are more complicated. Humans are supposed to take care of them, he said, not shoot them or let them starve and die: they’re for food—and of course, they’re large, and they’re in a lot of storybooks, and they have big eyes. Alaskans, like many US westerners, are also protective of the state’s ranching legacy—cattle ranchers transformed the landscape to a more familiar place for colonizers and created an American story of triumph, leaving out the messy bits.

We spot a herd of mostly cows and calves, picture-book perfect, with chestnut coats and white faces and socks. We edge closer, but they’re wary. They trot away.

Wherever they tread, bulls and cows transform a landscape.

Saltonstall, always a few leaps and bounds ahead, spots the Old Ranch—or part of it. A couple of bulls are hanging out near the sagging, severed rooms that cling to a cliff above the sea, refusing their fate. Ghostly fence posts march from the beach across a rolling landscape.

Close by is a wire exclosure, one of five Ebbert and his colleagues set up in 2016. The exclosure—big enough to park a quad—keeps out cattle, allowing an unaggravated patch of land to regenerate. Beach rye taller than cows soars within the fencing. This is what the island looks like without cattle: a haven for ground-nesting birds. The Alutiiq relied on beach rye, weaving the fiber into house thatching, baskets, socks, and other textiles; if they introduced ground squirrels, they knew what they were doing, since the rodents didn’t drastically alter the vegetation the way cattle do.

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Patrick Saltonstall, an archaeologist with the Alutiiq Museum in Kodiak, leads the way across the island, hiking past a former homestead and an exclosure built to keep cattle out and allow a patch of land to regenerate.

Saltonstall approaches a shed set back from the eroding cliff.

“Holy cow!” he hollers. No irony. He is peering into the shed.

On the floor, a cow’s head resembles a Halloween mask, horns up, eye sockets facing the door, snout resting close to what looks like a rusted engine. Half the head is bone, half is covered with hide and keratin. Femurs and ribs and backbone scatter the floor, amid bits and bobs of machinery. One day, for reasons unknown, this cow wedged herself into an old shed and died.

Cattle loom large in death, their bodies lingering. Their suffering—whether or not by human hands—is tangible. Through size, domestication, and ubiquity, they take up a disproportionate amount of space physically, and through anthropomorphism, they grab a disproportionate amount of human imagination and emotion. When Frank Murkowski said Alaska should leave one island to the cattle, he probably pictured a happy herd rambling a vast, unfenced pasture—not an island full of bones or heifer-buckling bulls.

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A cow wedged herself into an old shed and died, leaving these remains.

Birds are free, but they’re different. They vanish. We rarely witness their suffering, especially the birds we never see at backyard feeders—shorebirds and seabirds. We witness their freedom in fleeting moments, if at all, and when we do see them—gliding across a beach, sipping slime from an intertidal mudflat, resting on a boat rail far from shore—can we name the species? As popular as birding is, the world is full of non-birders. And so, we mistreat them. On Chirikof, where there should be storm petrels, puffins, and terns, there are cattle hoof prints, cattle plops, and cattle bones.

Hustling back to meet the seaplane, we skirt an area thick with cotton grass and ringed by small hills. In 2013, an ornithologist recorded six Aleutian terns and identified one nest with two eggs. In the United States, Aleutian tern populations have crashed by 80 percent in the past few decades. The tern is probably the most imperiled seabird in Alaska. But eradicating foxes, which ate birds’ eggs and babies, probably helped Chirikof’s avian citizens, perhaps most notably the terns. From a distance, we count dozens of birds, shooting up from the grass, swirling around the sky, and fluttering back down to their nests.

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Aleutian terns have found a toehold on Chirikof Island, especially since the eradication of foxes.

Terns may be dipping their webbed toes into a bad situation, but consider the other seabirds shooting their little bodies through the atmosphere, spotting specks of land in the middle of the Pacific Ocean to raise their young, and yet it’s unsafe for them on this big, lovely island. The outcry over a few hundred feral cattle—a loss that would have absolutely no effect on the species worldwide—seems completely irrational. Emotional. A case of maladaptive anthropomorphism. If a species’ purpose is to proliferate, cattle took advantage of their association with humans and won the genetic lottery.

Back at camp, we haul our gear to the lake. Ruoss arrives slightly early, and while he’s emptying red jerrycans of fuel into the Beaver, we grab tents and packs and haul them into the pontoons. Visibility today is even better than yesterday. I watch the teardrop-shaped island recede, thinking of what more than one scientist told me: when you’re on Chirikof, it’s so isolated, surrounded by whitecaps, that you hope only to get home. But as soon as you leave, you want to go back.

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Chirikof Island is so remote it’s unnerving being left behind as the plane flies away and sad when it arrives again to whisk visitors back to the human world.


Chirikof cattle are one of many herds people have sprinkled around the world in surprising and questionable places. And cattle have a tendency to go feral. On uninhabited Amsterdam Island in the Indian Ocean, the French deposited a herd that performed an evolutionary trick in response to the constraints of island living: the size of individuals shrank in the course of 117 years, squashing albatross colonies in the process. In Hong Kong, feral cattle plunder vegetable plots, disturb traffic, and trample the landscape. During the colonization of the Americas and the Caribbean, cattle came to occupy spaces violently emptied of Indigenous people. Herds ran wild—on small islands like Puerto Rico and across expanses in Texas and Panama—pulverizing landscapes that had been cultivated for thousands of years. No question: cattle are problem animals.

A few genetic studies explore the uniqueness of Chirikof cattle. Like freedom, “unique” is a vague word. I sent the studies to a scientist who researches the genetics of hybrid species to confirm my takeaway: the cattle are hybrids, perhaps unusual hybrids, some Brown Swiss ancestry but mostly British Hereford and Russian Yakutian, an endangered breed. The latter are cold tolerant, but no study shows selective forces at play. The cattle are not genetically distinct; they’re a mix of breeds, the way a labradoodle is a mix of a Labrador and a poodle.

The cows and bulls of Chirikof Island look storybook perfect, from a distance.

Feral cattle graze unusual niches all over the world, and maybe some are precious genetic outliers. But the argument touted by livestock conservancies and locals that we need Chirikof cattle genes as a safeguard against some future fatal cattle disease rings hollow. And if we did, we might plan and prepare: freeze some eggs and sperm.

Cattle live feral lives elsewhere in the Alaska Maritime, too, on islands shared by the refuge and Indigenous owners or, in the case of Sitkinak Island, where a meat company grazes cattle. Why Frank Murkowski singled out Chirikof is puzzling: Alaska will probably always have feral cattle. Chirikof cattle, of use to practically no one, fully residing within a wildlife refuge a federal agency is charged with protecting for birds, with no concept of the human drama swirling around their presence, have their own agenda for keeping themselves alive. Unwittingly, humans are part of the plan.

We created cattle by manipulating their wild cousins, aurochs, in Europe, Asia, and the Sahara beginning over 10,000 years ago. Unlike Frankenstein’s monster, who could never find a place in human society, cattle trotted into societies around the world, making themselves at home on most ranges they encountered. Rosa Ficek, an anthropologist at the University of Puerto Rico who has studied feral cattle, says they generally find their niche. Christopher Columbus brought them on his second voyage to the Caribbean in 1493, and they proliferated, like the kudzu of the feral animal world. “[Cattle are] never fully under the control of human projects,” she says. They’re not “taking orders the way military guys are … They have their own cattle plans.”

The larger question is, Why are we so nervous about losing cattle? In terms of sheer numbers, they’re a successful species. There is just over one cow or bull for every eight people in the world. If numbers translate to likes, we like cows and bulls more than dogs. If estimates are right, the world has 1.5 billion cattle and 700 million dogs. Imagine all the domesticated animals that would become feral if some apocalypse took out humans.


I could say something here about how vital seabirds—as opposed to cattle—are to marine ecosystems and the overall health of the planet. They spread their poop around the oceans, nurturing plankton, coral reefs, and seagrasses, which nurture small plankton-eating fishes, which are eaten by bigger fishes, and so on. Between 1950 and 2010, the world lost some 230 million seabirds, a decline of around 70 percent.

But maybe it’s better to end with conjuring the exquisiteness of seabirds like the Aleutian terns in their breeding plumage, with their white foreheads, black bars that run from black bill to black-capped heads, feathers in shades of grays, white rump and tail, and black legs. Flashy? No. Their breeding plumage is more timeless monochromatic, with the clean, classic lines of a vintage Givenchy design. The Audrey Hepburn of seabirds. They’re so pretty, so elegant, so difficult to appreciate as they flit across a cotton grass meadow. Their dainty bodies aren’t much longer than a typical ruler, from bill to tail, but their wingspans are over double that, and plenty strong to propel them, in spring, from their winter homes in Southeast Asia to Alaska and Siberia.

Bird, Sky, Beak, Cloud, Fluid, Feather

The Aleutian tern is dainty yet strong, migrating from Southeast Asia to Alaska and Siberia each spring. Photo by blickwinkel/Alamy Stock Photo

A good nesting experience, watching their eggs hatch and their chicks fledge, with plenty of fish to eat, will pull Aleutian terns back to the same places again and again and again—like a vacationing family, drawn back to a special island, a place so infused with good memories, they return again and again and again. That’s called fidelity.

Humans understand home, hard work, and family. So, for a moment, think about how Aleutian terns might feel after soaring over the Pacific Ocean for 16,000 kilometers with their compatriots, making pit stops to feed, and finally spotting a familiar place, a place we call Chirikof. They have plans, to breed and nest and lay eggs. The special place? The grassy cover is okay. But, safe nesting spots are hard to find: massive creatures lumber about, and the terns have memories of loss, of squashed eggs, and kicked chicks. It’s sad, isn’t it?

This story was made possible in part by the Fund for Environmental Journalism and the Society of Environmental Journalists and was published in collaboration with Earth Island Journal.