State board approves elk hunt on Zarembo for next year

The state Board of Game has approved a proposal to reopen an elk hunt on Zarembo Island, though the odds that a local could nab a tag and take a bull will be low — a small number of tags will be available and the drawing will be open to hunters nationwide.

The first drawing will likely take place this fall, with the hunt set for fall 2024.

There hasn’t been an elk hunt on Zarembo for nearly 20 years, due to concerns about the small population’s sustainability, explained Petersburg-based state Fish and Game biologist Frank Robbins. “The last year of the hunt, I believe they thought there might be 10 bulls and they shot 6 or 7,” he said.

The hunt was reinstated after Chris Guggenbickler and Jordan Buness of the Wrangell Fish and Game Advisory Committee submitted a proposal suggesting that the state board establish a drawing hunt on the island at its Jan. 20 meeting in Ketchikan.

Robbins is unsure of the current size of the island’s elk population because the coastal rainforest environment makes the animals “very difficult to survey.” The department conducts area surveys from the air, searching the tidal zones where elk congregate and assessing the health of the herd. “We realize we won’t see all of them,” he said. “Between now and the hunt, we’ll be trying to formulate a method by which we can get an idea of how many permits to issue.”

Though the number of available tags has not been determined, Robbins does not anticipate issuing many. “There will never be a large harvest on Zarembo,” he said. “There just isn’t enough population.” The department will adopt a conservative management strategy to ensure the herd’s sustainability, given the lack of concrete population data.

The drawing will be open to Alaska residents and non-residents. The Wrangell advisory committee discussed pushing for a resident-only drawing, but members were concerned that adding too many stipulations to the proposal would decrease its chances of board approval. “It was more important to us to get the hunt established and maybe try to get resident-only later,” said Guggenbickler.

He encouraged deer hunters on the island to photograph and report elk sightings to Robbins to help gather more accurate data on the size of the herd.

Regardless, the hunt had significant community and in-state support. Because of its road system and proximity to Wrangell, the success rate is “considerably higher on Zarembo than on Etolin,” said Guggenbickler. He recalled seeing about 20 messages on the Board of Game website supporting his proposal.

Elk are not native to the island. In 1986, the Alaska Legislature approved transplanting 50 of them to nearby Etolin Island and the population spread to Zarembo independently in the following years.

The state has long allowed a similar drawing hunt for elk on Etolin. Over the past decade, the annual limit has been 25 permits on Etolin, though less than half that number were used. The harvest ranged between one and three elk a year 2011-2021, according to Department of Fish and Game statistics.

Though Zarembo Island’s accessibility was an attractive factor in pushing to expand the hunt, protecting the island’s deer population was among the reasons supporters cited in backing the elk hunt. The deer harvest on Zarembo is of utmost importance to the Wrangell community, Guggenbickler explained, and elk eat many of the same foods. During a harsh winter, the two species could end up competing for scant resources.

However, the level of competition for food depends on the abundance of foliage. Unless the area experienced a particularly harsh winter, competition likely wouldn’t be a concern, Robbins clarified, since deer and elk prefer different forest species.

“People are hunting deer and they see elk,” he said. “It’s understandable that they want access to that resource.”

 

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