Walrus Island Game Sanctuary

Dear Alaska Quite Rights Coalition members:

Please contact Governor Walker and thank him for naming a new ADF&G commissioner and asking for the resignation of ADF&G division chiefs. Gov. Walker has stated that he will restore the public process to any of Alaska’s Special Area Management Plans when they are revised. This is a very important step toward ensuring that critical wildlife habitat that is now protected in Alaska’s game sanctuaries, refuges and critical habitat areas will continue to be given that protection and the habitat maintained.

The Walrus Islands State Game Sanctuary did fall victim to the last administrations closed door policy on managing Alaska’s Special Areas. During the last year of the Parnell administration funding was withdrawn for ADF&G to staff Round Island in the Walrus Islands State Game Sanctuary. Without ADF&G staff on the island the walrus that the sanctuary was created to protect will be in jeopardy. Please write the new Alaska Fish and Game Commissioner Sam Cotten (sam.cotten@alaska.gov) and the Director of Wildlife Conservation Bruce Dale (bruce.dale@alaska.gov) and ask them to restore funding for this important program. Please sign the petition to restore funding the Round Island program:

The Walrus Islands State Game Sanctuary was created in 1960 when legislators saw the need to protect the walrus from disturbance human disturbances. Round Island, a 1.3 sq. mile island in the sanctuary, is a summer haulout for bull walruses. Walruses are very sensitive to noise disturbance and sanctuary regulations restrict boat activity within 3 miles of the island and advise aircraft to fly no lower than 5,000 feet to protect the soundscape. Round Island has been staffed for approximately four months each summer for the last 40 years. Staff protect the walrus haulouts from boat and aircraft disturbance and carry out long term monitoring of walruses, Stellar sea lions and seabird populations. They manage the visitor program and assists researchers. Round Island is a very important archeological site. It is recognized by a special federal designation as a National Natural Landmark Site.

The Walrus Islands State Game Sanctuary Round Island program has been a very successful in all aspects. It is the only place in the U.S. where visitors can go to observe and photograph walrus on a regular basis. Walrus still have a quiet place to rest at Round Island because there is ADF&G staff on island to enforce the sanctuary regulations. Walruses are very sensitive to noise disturbance and will stampede from beaches if boats or planes approach to closely. There is a large herring, salmon and yellow-fin sole fishery in the northwestern portion of Bristol Bay where Round Island is located. A three mile no boat zone has been established around the island to ensure that the walrus are not disturbed while they rest between feeding forays. It takes ADF&G presence on the island to monitor the boat traffic to make sure that boats do not approach to closely to the island. Walrus ivory is valuable and there is a temptation for people to poach ivory from Round Island as was observed and prosecuted successfully due to the quick work of ADF&G staff.

ADF&G staff have built and maintained a system of trails on the rugged island that give access to a number of view points where walrus, sea lions and nesting seabirds can be observed and photographed. There is a campground with wooden tent platforms, outhouse and cook shelter where visitors can camp in comfort despite the often adverse weather. For many visitors their time on Round Island is a highlight to their wilderness travels. It is a very unique experience unavailable any place else in the world.

Generations of walruses that haulout at Round Island have survived the overhunting of pre statehood days and the walrus slaughter of the 1900’s. It has been protected from the busy traffic of the commercial fisheries in the region and curious visitors unfamiliar with how vulnerable walruses are to noise disturbance. The walrus have been protected from ivory poachers. The walrus continue to utilize Round Island, while many other historic haulouts have been abandoned, and are available for subsistence hunters from a variety of villages in the region and for visitors from around the world to observe. The ADF&G Round Island monitoring program has been very successful at accomplishing what it was designated to do. It will require continued funding to staff Round Island to ensure that the walrus will continue to be able to haulout on the beaches unmolested by intentional or unintentional human disturbance. Without staff on the island the walrus will be in jeopardy. Why take that risk?

Alaska spends millions of dollars to advertise iconic wildlife such as polar bears, wolves, caribou, whales, brown bears and walruses and the great expanses of wilderness to encourage visitors to come to Alaska . The irony is when it comes time to protect these animals, even in long established sanctuaries, refuges and critical habitat areas it is a constant battle. Round Island exemplifies the image of Alaska that the state sells to the world and indeed the stereotypical image many people have when they dream of coming to Alaska. It is Round Islands status as a game sanctuary and the protection it has received by regulation and ADF&G staff that has made it the best place in Alaska to observe walrus. It is Alaska’s responsibility to protect our Critical Habitat Areas.

ADF&G should allocate the funds to continue protect our special areas for future generations. Walruses have been shown to be under stress because of changes in ice formation in the Bering and Chukchi Seas. Walrus Islands State Game Sanctuary is more important than ever! Please contact ADF&G Commissioner Sam Cotten and the Director of Wildlife Conservation and ask that funding for the Round Island monitoring program be restored.

For additional information please see Bill Sherwonit’s article in the Alaska Dispatch News: http://www.adn.com/article/20150202/governor-should-restore-round-island-station-or-explain-why-not

Thank you.

Brian Okonek
AQRC president