Elk on a Zarembo Island beach.
(Courtesy Mike Kampnich)

Alaska’s game management board has authorized an elk hunt on Zarembo Island in Southeast Alaska for the first time in nearly two decades. The state Department of Fish and Game opposed the hunt, but strong support from Wrangell and other local communities helped convince the board to take the leap.

Listen to the radio version of this story here.

Elk are not indigenous to the Alexander Archipelago in Southeast Alaska. They were introduced to Etolin Island in the mid-1980s and spread to other islands nearby. That includes Zarembo, which is about 10 miles across the Zimovia Strait and visible from downtown Wrangell. 

But the Alaska Department of Fish & Game has shut down elk hunting on Zarembo for the past 17 years, concerned about low population. 

Chris Guggenbickler is the chair of Wrangell’s Fish & Game Advisory Committee. He says locals have kept the flame for a Zarembo elk hunt. 

“Elk is always something that we’re talking about,” he says. “There are so many people that have talked to us about the abundance of elk on Zarembo and the fact that they want to have a hunt again.”

Guggenbickler says Wrangell’s Advisory Committee intended to propose a hunt last year but ran out of time. This year, he took it upon himself to write a proposal. Wrangell electrician and fellow AC member Jordan Buness signed on. 

“In the final hour, I kind of drafted that thing up on my way out fishing,” he admits, “And I called Jordan [Buness], I was like, ‘You want to co-sign onto this thing?’ And he did, so we got it in front of everybody.”

Guggenbickler says getting approval for the elk hunt felt like an uphill battle, because Fish & Game actively opposed the proposal. But Wrangell and Petersburg’s Advisory Committees supported the move. 

There’s some question as to what the Zarembo Island elk population actually is. Hunters and fishermen say it’s probably higher than 50 animals. Fish & Game says it’s at 50 or lower. 

Biologist Frank Robbins, who oversees Game Unit 3, the area around Petersburg and Wrangell, told Board of Game members at their January meeting in Ketchikan that he’s seen at most 23 elk on Zarembo Island. He says the current population is around 50, although that’s just an estimation because elk are hard to spot on the island.

“There is no available data that suggests that the Zarembo Island elk population has increased since hunting ended in 2006,” Robbins told the Board of Game. 

For Board of Game members, that begged the question: Is it possible to sustainably harvest elk when the population is so small? Biologist Robbins was doubtful, but conceded it’s feasible.

“I’ve been a biologist for pushing 30 years,” Robbins related, “I did at one time manage the Chitina bison herd and year in and year out we would fly over the Chitina bison herd and count 50 animals. We issued two permits annually.”

He continued: “The management objective for these elk herds is to manage the populations below carrying capacity, provide opportunity and post-harvest, maintain a bull-cow ratio of 25 to 30 bulls. The difficulty is trying to assess what the current bull count is right now – how many there are and what the count or bull-to-cow ratio is. Theoretically, it would be possible to manage.”

Advisory Committee member Guggenbickler doesn’t think Fish & Game’s population estimate is correct – the number hasn’t changed much since the hunt closed. 

“The last hunt was in 2006 [and] there were six bulls taken. They closed the hunt, thinking that there really weren’t a lot of bulls left on the island,” Guggenbickler says, “And then the proposal came off of the books. It’s been 17 years since we’ve had a hunt, so they’ve had that long to rebuild.”

There’s already a federal subsistence elk hunt in the area, but it excludes Zarembo and Etolin Islands, as well as some of the smaller neighboring islets. 

The Board of Game rejected three other elk hunt proposals, including a different proposed hunt on Zarembo and nearby islands, as well as two proposals to modify the current elk hunt on Etolin Island, south of Zarembo. But they unanimously supported Guggenbickler’s and Buness’s proposal at their January meeting. 

Hunters from around the region wrote letters and spoke to the board about how they’ve seen increasing numbers of elk on Zarembo Island. And Guggenbickler says he believes the strong show of public support for the proposal helped swing the board’s favor. 

During board deliberations, Chair Jerry Burnett said his opinion on the hunt was also somewhat swayed by the fact that elk aren’t a native species, even in light of the small population. 

“Maybe elk just don’t belong there, and maybe it’s just not an appropriate place for elk,” Burnett mused. “They were an introduced species, they’re not supposed to be there anyway, right? That wasn’t the plan. So my question is: why not hunt a bull, you know? Maybe the harvestable surplus is one or two. But obviously they’re aging out and dying if they’ve been there that long, some are being born. So something’s going on here. If you had a herd of 50 cattle, you’d certainly be harvesting some.”

Robbins, the biologist, referenced a research project in the 90s which found significant overlap – about 64% – in the diets of elk and deer, especially when resources are strained after a heavy snow. Guggenbickler says he explained to the board that deer are a major meat source in Wrangell – hunting elk could reduce the deer’s competition for food. 

“I mean, it’s a huge subsistence food for the community,” Guggenbickler explains. “We learned that there’s a 6[4]% overlap in what the elk eat and what the deer eat, and because the elk are predominantly on the beach, we were worried that if there was a hard winter, the deer were gonna end up on the beach, the elk would have ate all the food, the deer would have been compromised.”

The newly approved elk hunt will take place in October. Hunters will apply for one of up to 25 tags to take one bull, the actual number available will be up to Robbins, the area biologist. But Guggenbickler expects the department to be cautious – at least for now – in how they issue tags.

“Because of the road system and the accessibility on Zarembo, the department is going to be conservative because they feel there’s going to be a higher success rate,” Guggenbickler says, explaining: “Etolin [Island] has a very low success rate; there are actually quite a few tags that go out but the success rates are only two or 3%. So I think they anticipate that Zarembo will have a higher success rate and they’re going to be conservative and how they issue tags until they have a better idea of the abundance on the island.”

Moving forward, Guggenbiclker says he and colleagues on the Wrangell Advisory Committee may try to add a residency priority to the hunt. 

“I think maybe in the future, there’s going to be a push to make it residents only,” Guggenbickler notes, adding: “We had considered it, and from the advice we had it was problematic, and we were concerned that the entire proposal might fail based on that. So the idea was just to kind of get the whole thing in the books – let’s baby-step this thing, and then hopefully we can get a resident priority later on.”

For now, they’re just glad it passed. 

“Elk are kind of one of those species we don’t get a shot at much around here, and there’s some huge animals,” Guggenbickler says, “And I think everybody’s just hoping they might draw that tag and kill that great big bull.”

Alaska’s draw hunts open in November. If the new Zarembo elk hunt makes it on the official regulation books in time, hunters may be able to submit their names for an elk tag on Zarembo this fall, with the first season in October of 2024. 

Get in touch with KSTK at news@kstk.org or (907) 874-2345.