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Wood bison may be reintroduced to Alaska after decades of effort

Jill Burke
USFWS photo

After more than two decades of trying to give the wood bison a renewed foothold in the Last Frontier, the day when a herd of the one-ton beasts roams Interior Alaska is quickly approaching. On Thursday, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announce a plan to restore wild populations of the big beasts to Alaska, where bison once lived until their eradication more than a century ago.

“We believe this is a positive step forward,” said Doug Vincent-Lang, director of wildlife conservation for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, which has pursued the Wood Bison Project for years.

It's unknown precisely why wood bison disappeared from Alaska. Theories include over-hunting, climate change or a loss of favored foods. The goal today is to create a wild population of the animals in Alaska that would sustain hunting and tourism, while restoring a once-indigenous grazing animal that has historic and cultural ties to Alaskans.

Musk oxen were similarly re-introduced to Alaska in the 1930s. But a tangle of government oversight that came in the decades to follow proved a formidable obstacle to returning wood bison to their home Alaska ranges. The biggest hurdles were the Endangered Species Act and prohibitions on animal importation to prevent disease. Wood bison had survived in Canada, but were listed as endangered there, a listing the U.S. concurred with and adopted in the early 1970s.

More recently, as progress was made to overcome those barriers, new concerns emerged. For Alaska, an oil-and-gas rich, pro-development state, one of the main concerns was whether bringing in a species listed under the Endangered Species Act would hamper oil and gas development. Within the last decade it became a deal-breaker, and the state managers overseeing the reintroduction project sent their federal counterparts, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, back to the drawing board for an acceptable fix.

Eventually, bison hunting

The workaround Fish and Wildlife came up with is to designate wood bison as a “nonessential experimental population” in Alaska, meaning the animals are not considered crucial to the overall survival of the species, which has rebounded enough in Canada to have its status revised from endangered to threatened. This strategy brings with it a second plus for resource development-minded Alaskans: Critical habitat for the wood bison cannot be designated.

Under a separate federal exception, hunting wood bison would be allowed as a way to manage the herd. Alaska Native subsistence users would get priority, but Alaska Department of Fish and Game representatives said Thursday the intended goal is to open the herd, once it's established and large enough, to a wider group of hunters.  

A two-month public comment period on the proposal begins Friday.

If no significant opposition is raised, the project could get under way by next spring.

Wood bison being kept in captivity at the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center in Portage would be relocated to a grassy meadow region near the lower Innoko and Yukon Rivers. Fifty-eight wood bison were first transferred to the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center from Elk Island National Park in Canada in 2008. Since then, the herd has grown to 132 animals. Nearly 40 calves were born last spring.

When they’re set free in the wild, wood bison will be flown to their release site, then held in pens for several months as they slowly acclimate. We have no doubt that these animals will be well adjusted to the landscape and be able to survive,” Lang said.

North America's elephant

The air taxi that gets the job will need to be a big plane. Males can be 6 feet tall and weigh more than 2,000 pounds. “What the elephant is to South Africa the wood bison is to North America,” Mike Miller, executive director for AWCC, said about the animal's massive size.

Miller and his staff have cared for the captive herd, and are looking forward to bidding them farewell.

“These bison shouldn't be looking at wire down at Portage, looking at fences,” he said. “I'm glad to see that some day they will be free.”

Contact Jill Burke at jill(at)alaskadispatch.com