ANCHORAGE, Alaska - In the deeply forested lands of Afognak Island, fewer than 1,000 Roosevelt elk wander freely, ignorant of the property lines they cross. They ford creeks, climb ridges and wade through kettle ponds. They winter in protected bays that shield them from the snow. They breed and raise their young under the shelter of old-growth Sitka spruce.
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The elk know nothing of the humans who've worked to protect their habitat. They simply exist, hunted occasionally, photographed rarely, expanding in population during mild years and suffering losses during harsh ones.
It is a scenario that members of the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation - along with a host of other agencies and organizations - envisioned when they began a five-year process to purchase some 4,400 acres of prime elk habitat on northern Afognak Island to keep it perpetually protected.
The deal, finalized this summer, cost $4 million and includes three parcels of land - a 2,200-acre section just west of Perenosa Bay at the northern tip of the island and two old-growth Sitka spruce forests totaling 2,000 acres adjacent to Afognak Island State Park.
As Steve Perrins, Alaska chairman for the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation said, "This ... ensures that winter range for two herds is maintained, and that is great news for hunters who love to hunt the magnificent Roosevelt elk on the island."
Afognak Island is the second-largest of the islands making up the Kodiak Archipelago. More than 40 miles long and about 25 miles wide, it has a diverse ecosystem that supports hundreds of seabirds and shorebirds, and more than a dozen marine mammal species, including sea otters, Steller sea lions and seals. It is prime salmon-spawning habitat, and steelhead fishing is spectacular.
The Roosevelt elk, transplants from Washington's Olympic Peninsula in 1928, are relative newcomers, sharing the land with brown bears, Sitka black-tailed deer and various smaller wildlife.
"(Biologists) did a radio-collar study to determine where these herds were located, and where their winter range was," he said. "That was how they pinpointed these properties as the missing piece of the puzzle with the state land and federal land around it."
According to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, Afognak elk numbers peaked at about 1,500 during the mid-1960s. Over the next decade, though, cold, harsh winters increased calf mortality, dropping the population to as low as 450. By the mid-1980s the numbers rebounded to about 1,200 animals.
Because the animals live on an island, it is thought that the population is as stable as possible, reaching "carrying capacity" when too many crowd into a limited space.
Like the Kodiak brown bear, Afognak's Roosevelt elk, which feed on grasses and leafy vegetation in the summer and shrubs and bushes in the fall, have a reputation for being big, larger than the more common Rocky Mountain elk.
According to Fish and Game statistics, annual hunting of Roosevelt elk on Afognak decreased from a high of 181 animals taken in the 1998-99 season to a low of 62 in the 2002-03 season. They also are hunted on nearby Raspberry Island, as well as in Southeast Alaska.