A scrappy herd of cattle is on its own again, foraging for beach rye and other grasses on a storm-battered Alaska island, surviving much as it has for more than a century -- without a caretaker.
The latest custodian of the feral animals abandoned plans to sell them as livestock. That left the federal government without anyone to carry out its plans to remove the estimated 800 cows from Chirikof Island and establish a haven there for indigenous seabirds. Officials say the cattle have battered former nesting grounds.
But with ownership of the cattle in dispute, the herd remains trapped on the 28,000-acre island, which falls under the jurisdiction of the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge.
"The cows are alone again, but they've been that way more often than not," said Greg Siekaniec, the refuge's manager .
A long line of adventurers have laid claim to the descendants of the animals first brought to the treeless island in the late 1800s as a meat stock for whaling ship crews and a blue fox industry established by Russian fur traders along the Aleutian Islands to the west.
Over the years, enterprising ranchers have introduced a variety of beef and dairy breeds, including Angus, Herefords, shorthorns, Guernseys and Scottish Highlands. The result: a unique hybrid well suited to survive harsh winters on little more than the kelp that washes up on shore.
The last to try a hand with the hardy but notoriously skittish herd was Tim Jacobson, 41, a flannel-clad cowboy who planned to sell the cattle as range-fed beef or superior breeding stock. He envisioned marketing them as disease-free animals with a taste and texture more like elk than beef.
But the challenge was getting them off an island with no natural harbors and submerged reefs in a region dogged by unpredictable and harsh weather.
Jacobson managed to barge out 40 head of cattle from the island, which lies about 425 miles southwest of Anchorage. But according to a civil lawsuit filed against him, he failed to pay for various services from Kodiak Island 80 miles to the north, such as cattle transport, building fences on the island and supplying supplemental feed. Plaintiffs say he owes them more than $100,000 and 116 head of cattle.
Numerous attempts to reach Jacobson were unsuccessful.
When he was a no-show at his trial in February in Kodiak, a Superior Court judge sided with the eight plaintiffs. No one expects him to pay, said Tony Lara, a plaintiff who says he did not receive the $24,000 he was owed for delivering supplies to the island and a failed attempt to transport the cattle on his 96-foot landing craft, the Lazy Bay.
"Lack of preparation on his part was why we did not succeed," said Lara, 40, who is working with some of the plaintiffs to take over the venture. "The only way I see us getting our money back is if we just go there and get the cows ourselves."
The Lazy Bay is already rigged for transporting animals, and Lara said he is well aware of the treacherous conditions. He said he would find a better landing spot than the southwest corner of the island, which Jacobson had used as his base.
Another plaintiff, Chris Flickinger, also wants to recoup his losses, which total more than $39,000, according to the court award. He spent months on Chirikof, helping Jacobson collect driftwood to build corrals and a beachfront chute to channel the cattle to boats. He also supplied three horses, but only one has been returned.
Flickinger, 36, a fifth-generation cow rancher from Colorado, said he wants to preserve the lineage of the cattle, preferably by relocating them to another remote island. He also thinks some would make excellent beef stock or rodeo bulls.
Getting the animals off Chirikof is definitely possible, he said, given his cattle experience and Lara's navigational savvy.
"It can totally be done, and it can be done right," Flickinger said.
But there is the question of ownership to resolve before the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which oversees the 3.5 million-acre refuge, will issue a permit authorizing anyone to remove the cattle.
When Jacobson's permit lapsed, officials were left to unravel a legal tangle between the previous permit holders and former partners he brought in near the end of his involvement, according to refuge manager Siekaniec. Adding another complication, one of the partners died earlier this year.
The last time Siekaniec spoke with Jacobson a couple of months ago, Jacobson said he thought he still owned the animals. Despite the murky circumstances, the government will not be dissuaded, Siekaniec said. The cattle are no longer welcome on Chirikof.
"I have every intention of staying the course," Siekaniec said. "We just need to figure out who we're dealing with."
Two years ago, feral cattle waited for shipping off Chirikof Island, Alaska.