Chirikof Island, Kodiak Archipelago

Chirikof Island, Kodiak Archipelago

by | Jun 19, 2021

Chirikof Island is about 33,000 acres (13,000 ha) located in the Gulf of Alaska approximately 180 miles (290 km) southwest of Kodiak and 137 miles (221 km) east of Perryville, Alaska. Despite the extreme remoteness, the island has a long and storied history of human habitation, shipwrecks, and feral cattle. The island is treeless and the vegetation consists of grasses and sedges. Chirikof Island was only sporadically occupied by humans until around 2300 years ago when a group settled there, apparently from the Alaska Peninsula. Alutiiq people of the area call the island Ukamok for the ground squirrels that were probably introduced in prehistoric times. In 1741, Captain Vitus Bering on Saint Peter, and Captain Alexei Chirikov on Saint Paul, recorded a sighting of the island on August 2 and named it Saint Stephen Island. In 1794, explorer Captain George Vancouver renamed the island Chirikof Island.

During the Russian colonial period, a population of 60-100 villagers lived a subsistence lifestyle supported at first by the sea otter fur trade. The villagers were Alutiiq, Tlingit, Russian and western Europeans. The Alaska Commercial Company acquired the assets of the Russian-American Company in 1867 following the Alaska Purchase. In 1887, a blue fox farm was started by a subsidiary of the Alaska Commercial Company, and voles were introduced to feed the foxes. Cattle were imported to provide meat for the American caretakers until about 1912. The island has no harbor, and landings were particularly dangerous, so the cattle were driven overboard and swam to shore. Once on land, the cattle thrived unattended on the nutritious island grasses. The beef industry on Chirikof began in earnest in 1925 when Jack McCord formed the Chirikof Cattle Company and labored until 1950 to make a profit. A succession of operators has since been challenged to market and remove the beef from this remote island.

In 1971, the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act transferred certain state lands to federal ownership and in 1980, Chirikof Island was added to the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge. The management plan for the refuge entails restoring the island’s native species and requires removal of the cattle, which overgraze the land, damage bird habitat, and destroy archeological sites. However, in 2003, an attempt to remove a small part of the herd by barge resulted in injuries to the animals. In an earlier attempt, 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. In 2016, the U.S. Congress added a passage to the federal budget that forbids the Fish and Wildlife Service from moving cattle off the island. Read more here and here. Explore more of Chirikof Island here:

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