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Alaska refuge proposes killing invasive caribou

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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) — A federal agency is considering lethal measures to protect an Alaska island refuge from an invasive species — caribou.

The big game animals are a popular target for Alaska hunters. The state annually pays to kill hundreds of wolves and bears to enhance moose and caribou populations. But caribou are an unwelcome, unnatural presence in a wilderness refuge in the central Aleutian Islands.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials say caribou swim from Adak Island, where they were introduced to provide sport hunting for military personnel, to uninhabited Kagalaska Island, part of the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge. The agency proposes to keep a new herd from forming by killing caribou on Kagalaska with refuge staff, volunteers or contractors, starting next year.

Five caribou were shot in 2012 and up to 15 more may be on the island. Kagalaska is a wilderness area and caribou would alter it, said refuge manager Steve Delehanty.

"Things that belong out there ought to stay out there as much as possible," he said by phone from his office in Homer. "Things that don't belong out there ought to not be out there, as much as possible."

Caribou would target the island's lichen beds, trample other vegetation and create trails, he said.

"None of it is natural," Delehanty said.

Adak is a 283-square mile island 1,300 miles southwest of Anchorage. The military built an airfield on the island during World War II and it was used as a Naval Air Station until 1997.

The nearest native caribou are 500 miles away. At the request of military officials, caribou were introduced to the island in 1958 to give personnel opportunities for recreational hunting.

When the island housed 1,000 to 6,000 people, sport hunting kept the herd to 200 to 400 animals. After the base closed, by 2012, the herd had grown to an estimated 2,700 animals. Their only predators are people, and hunters can shoot cows year-round.

Adak and 46-square mile Kagalaska are separated by an 8-mile channel that can be crossed with a swim of a few hundred yards. Wildlife officials in the late 1990s began finding antlers, feces and tracks on Kagalaska.

Caribou on mainland Alaska typically migrate, traveling miles between summer and winter ranges, and don't overgraze in one location.

Kagalaska has an inactive volcano but no trees. Vegetation is tundra and lichens. Mosses and alpine plants grow on uplands and mountain slopes. The only other terrestrial mammal found on the island is the Norway rat — also nonnative.

Federal officials fear that a Kagalaska caribou herd would spread to other Aleutian islands.

Alternatives such as a fence or live capture were rejected as expensive or impractical.

The Fish and Wildlife Service is taking comments on the proposal through Oct. 29. The agency could decide to take no action, study the issue more or make a final decision to kill caribou that reach Kagalaska.

Copyright © The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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